Chapter 1: caught by the light
Even can’t quite shake the cold loneliness of being in a new apartment.
He probably deserves it—his mom had begged him to stay with Sonja, Sonja had done the same, and even his friends had offered to stay with him for a few nights. Somehow, all the reasons not to do it had become reasons to sign the lease and agree to take the new place.
There were pros to the cons. It was only a one bedroom apartment, but the rent was dirt cheap to the point where he didn’t need a roommate. The money he earned at KB was more than sufficient to pay rent and have enough leftover to live a comfortable life. Most importantly, he was going to have a space where he could work on his art without pissing Sonja off for getting paint on the carpet.
The first night, he doesn’t sleep. He turns on the lamp when he thinks he hears water running, but it stops as abruptly as it started, and he feels stupid. He’s going to end up eating his own arm before he willingly admits that his mom, Sonja, and his friends were right—that living alone isn’t befitting for him the way it is for some.
Even meets his neighbor on a Tuesday, three days after he moves in. She drops her purse when she sees him. Loose coins and a lipstick clatter as they fall on the ground, and Even drops his groceries to help her pick up the coins.
“Shit, sorry, I just—I didn’t know anyone lived here anymore,” she says. “I’m Vilde.”
“Hi, I’m Even.” He smiles politely. “Just moved in about two or three days ago, actually. I’ve been meaning to come by and introduce myself, but just kept losing track of time.”
“That’s OK,” Vilde says cheerfully, but Even can’t help but notice that the initial alarm doesn’t quite leave her face.
“Well, it was nice meeting you, Vilde, I’ll see you around.” Even gives her a small wave, then turns to unlock his own door. He’s aware that Vilde hasn’t taken a step. When he turns back around, she’s peeping into his apartment and averts her gaze guiltily a moment after Even’s already caught her.
“Would you like to come in for tea or coffee or anything?” He realizes he sounds wary, but he supposes offering a beverage is the neighborly thing to do. His mother taught him well. Besides, Vilde looks harmless enough—if anything, she looks a little afraid of him and the least he can do is put any concerns she may have about living in close quarters with a suspicious stranger at bay.
Even lifts an eyebrow, taken aback by the firmness in her tone. He doesn’t look that off-putting, and he's never actually repulsed anyone on first sight as much as he seems to have repulsed Vilde.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so—I meant no, thank you.” Vilde’s cheeks are a little pink. “May I ask—again, not to be rude or anything—but why did you move in here?”
It’s easily the strangest conversation he’s ever had. “Uh, because I saw a buy-to-let sign and needed a place to live?”
“But why here?” she presses. “There’s another apartment available in this building.”
Even shrugs. It doesn’t seem like neighborly inquisitiveness, but he also doesn’t know enough about Vilde to pass any judgment. “It was out of my budget.”
“You’re OK with this place?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Even laughs. “It’s a good place. Best I’ve seen.”
Vilde seems mildly consoled by his words. For what reason, he doesn’t really know. But thankfully, she doesn’t ask any other questions.
Sleep doesn’t come as easily to him in the new apartment. He thinks it might be a matter of getting used to a new space, but it’s not just that. Right as he starts to fall asleep, a cold gust of air wakes him up.
It doesn’t make sense.
The first few nights it happened, he turned off the air conditioning. He started closing the windows, too. His only other explanation is that there must be an open vent somewhere.
Harald, his apartment manager, crushes his vent theory.
“There’s no open vent; perhaps you’ve got a window open,” Harald says unhelpfully.
“Perhaps your AC is on.”
“It’s not.” Even’s a patient person, but he’s starting to get a little frustrated.
“Well, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
He’s desperate for a good night’s sleep, so he tries again. “Isn’t there someone you can call maybe? To have a look and see what’s wrong?”
“I could, but that’s reserved for serious issues, not imaginary vents.” Even thinks he must be glaring because Harald sighs. “Look, I’ll turn the heat up in your apartment, alright? I’m sure that will fix it.”
It doesn’t, but Even’s gone seven days on twenty hours of sleep in total, so he wraps the blanket a little tighter around himself, downs a beer, takes a pill, and passes out. He wakes up cold, but he also wakes up well-rested.
In less than two weeks, Even learns that Vilde isn’t the only person who acts strangely around him.
Barring Harald, it’s everyone on his floor. When they see him, see which apartment he’s going into, they greet him with variations of, “I didn’t know anyone lived there anymore.” Even returns their statements with polite shrugs and smiles, but the charade is hard to maintain when everyone looks at him like he’s part-dragon, part-human.
“Met your neighbor,” Mikael says when Even lets him in for a night of staying in, watching movies, and smoking joints. “Opened her door when I was knocking. Looked terrified as shit."
“Sounds normal,” Even mutters.
He can’t bring himself to admit it, but the way his neighbors are acting starts to put him on edge. But Mikael’s presence comforts him. He thinks he should start having more people over. They’re not in school anymore; they can throw parties, have little gatherings, hell, he could even find someone to hook up with and not worry about stepping on Sonja’s toes by parading a one-night stand in front of her.
He’s not sure how many hits they take between the two of them, but it’s enough that the room becomes vaguely foggy around the edges and lively with unrepressed laughter.
“Holy fuck, dude, I think I just heard something,” Mikael says. Even would worry he was getting paranoid if his eyes weren’t streaming with tears of laughter.
Even pats Mikael’s shoulder and his hand feels too heavy for his arm. His arm feels too heavy for the rest of his body. “Mik, you’re blazed.”
“No, no, no, shh, listen.” Mikael puts a finger on his lips and looks at Even with wide eyes. Even looks back with raised eyebrows and then—
The chair scrapes loudly against the floor and Even jumps.
“Fuck, I heard it that time,” Even says.
“Heard what?” Mikael looks like he’s still straining to hear something.
Even hangs his head in his hands and wills himself to calm down. “Hell, now I’m blazed,” he mutters.
The chair scrapes against the floor again and Even's heart starts beating faster, but Mikael still doesn’t react. Instead, he relaxes and picks up a raisin bun.
“Dude, where the fuck did you get this weed?” he asks, sniffing the bun.
Even shrugs, unsettled. Maybe Sonja was right. Maybe he really did need to stop mixing weed and alcohol and his meds. “Don’t know. Adam gave it to me.”
“God, either this is some really good shit or some really bad shit.”
Even nods in agreement and hopes he imagines the swirl of colors on his paint palette. Gray. Maroon. Green.
He glances over at Mikael, wonders if he sees it, too, but Mikael, seemingly having gotten over his minor bout of paranoia, devours two raisin buns.
Even’s definitely imagining it. He makes a mental deal with himself not to smoke as much ever again.
Even has second thoughts about whether he imagined everything when he wakes up.
The colors are still on his palette. And it’s seeped its way up onto the blank canvas. Gray. Maroon. Green.
He supposes it’s plausible that he started mixing colors when he was high and inspired; he just has no recollection of it. He wishes he could rewind just a few hours and bring himself to actually paint something of substance. As it stands, he has an apartment he rented under the guise of working on commissions for local galleries and no artwork to show for all his sleepless nights.
After a few seconds, he sits in front of the canvas. Stares. Wills some kind of mediocre inspiration to come to him. Gray. Maroon. Green. The blend of colors aren’t vivid or exciting. It’s muted, but strong. Doesn’t demand attention, but seeks it carefully.
All he does is look away long enough to take a sip of coffee, but when he turns his attention back to the canvas, there’s a messy line. In all three colors. Like someone dipped three fingers in paint and drew.
Even’s sure he didn’t do it. The only other person he can suspect is Mikael, but he’s suspending disbelief a lot already. He knows for a fact the line wasn’t there five minutes ago. Residual high, lack of sleep, he could attribute it to anything and still be wrong. He stares at the canvas for a few more seconds before taking it down completely.
Even’s had perhaps the longest day of his life.
To put it more accurately, he feels like he’s had the longest day of his life despite doing the bare minimum. He goes to therapy, he gets his prescription refilled, he visits his mom, he takes a day off from working at KB when Hanna agrees to cover for him, he gets takeout, and he’s thoroughly exhausted by the time he gets to his apartment.
He wants to eat, maybe drink a little, take a pill to sleep, and collapse in his bed.
Only, his plans are momentarily put on hold when he realizes someone’s broken into his apartment. Someone who must be astoundingly skilled at picking locks because there’s no other way he could’ve gotten into Even’s apartment on the eighth floor.
A quick glance around tells him the intruder probably hadn’t gotten enough time to completely rob him because everything looks intact and untouched. Almost everything. He notices some mail lies on the floor. But when he looks back at the boy—the intruder—Even notices that he hasn’t so much as moved a muscle despite the fact that Even’s clearly announced his presence by unlocking the door.
A few seconds pass and he clears his throat. The boy meets his gaze, but something seems off. Even gets the impression that they're not looking at each other; it feels like the boy is—strange as it is to fathom—looking through him. Even looks behind him for good measure, then closes the door, which isn't the wisest idea he’s had. He discreetly dials 112 on his phone just in case.
“Who are you?” Even asks.
“What are you doing here?”
“Talk now or I call the police.”
When the boy doesn’t seem at all fazed by the threat, Even walks over to him and tries to nudge him. Except, the boy doesn’t react. He tries again. And again. And again. On his fourth try, it seems like the boy jolts and he gets to his feet. A sudden gush of cold air knocks the wind out of Even’s lungs and he realizes his fingertips are practically numb from the cold.
“Who are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” he repeats.
The boy looks uncertain. He almost shrinks into the green bomber jacket he’s wearing. “Can you—can you see me?”
Even raises his eyebrows. Wonders if there’s a hidden camera somewhere in his apartment recording this for some kind of prank show. “Why, are you wearing a cloak of invisibility?” he asks sarcastically.
“Cloak of—” The boy stops abruptly, then gestures toward something in Even’s hand.
“What?” Even asks, exasperated. “Get out of my place.”
The words don’t really have the desired effect. If anything, the boy looks confused and a little pissed. “Your place? This isn’t your place.”
“Pretty sure I have a signed document that says otherwise.”
“So do I,” the boy argues, tilting his chin up in defiance.
Even crosses his arm across his chest. The boy’s presence in his house is starting to feel less like an intrusion and more like an honest mistake that he can’t really explain. “Let’s see it, then.”
“The signed document you apparently have that says this is your place.”
The boys opens and closes his mouth for a few seconds before mumbling something.
“What was that?” Even asks.
“I don’t know where it is, OK?” The boy’s angry. “Your rearrangement of everything in here has sort of fucked up my memory of where things are.”
Even pinches the bridge of his nose. Honest mistake, prank, whatever it is, Even doesn’t have the energy to deal with it. “Look, I think you have the wrong apartment.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
They go back and forth for a while until the boy huffs and picks up the mail that’s scattered on the floor. Or, he tries to pick it up. But all he succeeds in doing is getting the envelopes farther away from him, as if it’s been a triggered by a breeze.
“Fucking hell, can you—look, that’s the proof, alright? You’re still getting mail, aren’t you? Mail that doesn’t belong to you?”
It feels like a trick question, so Even doesn’t respond. The boy seems to take Even’s silence as an affirmative answer.
“It’s my mail,” the boy says. “Or, well, belongs to me and my mamma. It’s usually addressed to a Valtersen, isn’t it?” The boy doesn’t wait for him to respond. “Marianne or Isak Valtersen? I’m Isak. I live here.”
For a second, Even glances down at the mail. The boy—Isak—is right. Most are addressed to Marianne Valtersen. The others are addressed to Isak Valtersen. To ensure he hasn’t completely fallen off the wagon, Even looks around and feels relieved to note that he’s in the right place at least. This is definitely his apartment.
“I’ll give you the mail thing, but you don’t live here,” Even says as firmly as he can. “I’ve lived here for almost two weeks. Your mom put the house for sale. I don’t know where you’ve been, if you’ve only recently come back from uni or something, but this isn’t your place anymore.”
Isak makes a frustrated sound. “I know my mamma doesn’t live here, but I do. I’ve been here. Since you moved in. Since before you moved in. I tried to stop you from moving in when you did.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Isak throws up his hands and some of the color drains from his face. But it’s back the next second when Isak moves closer to Even. Even flinches. He feels like he’s standing in the dead of Oslo winter in a T-shirt and shorts.
“You’re doing that,” Even realizes, his teeth chattering.
“I’m doing that,” Isak agrees and he steps back.
The relief Even feels is almost instant, but he still shivers. He wonders how someone who’s wearing three layers can actually trap any cold air. The layers ignite something in Even’s brain, something that lacks specificity, but is some kind of a catalyst all the same.
Gray jeans. Maroon sweatshirt. Green bomber jacket.
Gray. Maroon. Green.
Even walks past Isak and picks up the canvas he’d tossed aside. There’s still a single line on it. Gray, maroon, green.
“You did this, too,” Even accuses.
Isak nods, but he looks a little guilty. “Definitely thought that would get you to leave,” he mutters.
“Why?” Isak repeats. “What do you mean why? Think about it. Anyone else would run screaming for their lives if a phantom started painting random lines on their shit.”
“You’re not a phantom,” Even returns with a scoff, but he doesn’t feel so sure.
“Look, I don’t—I don’t know why you couldn’t see me before and why you can see me now, but I can prove it to you.”
“Prove what to me?”
“That no one else can see me. That I’m not pranking you or whatever.” Isak rolls his eyes like he actually thinks the idea of Even being pranked is more ridiculous than Isak being a phantom. Sure. “Follow me.”
Even makes no move to do so. At least not until Isak floats through the door and then comes floating back inside.
“You know what? I’ll follow you,” he mutters.
Even stares at him, then slowly turns the knob of the door and walks outside. “What now?”
Isak’s a little too close to him and Even has to resist the urge to sprint to the other end of the hallway just to stay warm. “Knock on Vilde’s door,” Isak says quietly.
“Just do it.”
Even complies and ardently hopes she doesn’t answer. Of course, the universe is working against him because she does.
“Hi, Even,” she says brightly, a questioning lilt to her voice.
Isak’s a few steps behind him. Even feels him, but Vilde’s gaze doesn’t leave Even’s.
“Hi, Vilde.” He sounds stilted and he turns a little. Isak’s still there and Vilde isn’t paying him any attention.
“Did you need something?”
“Um, yeah.” He tries to rack his brain for something, anything that he may need and comes up empty-handed.
“Eggs, dumbass. Eggs, milk, bread, literally any fucking thing,” Isak finally says and Even whips his head around.
“Even?” Vilde sounds concerned. “Are you OK?”
“Eggs,” he says without any preamble.
Vilde looks alarmed. “I—eggs?”
Even hears a soft, gleeful chuckle from behind him. It’s not a bad sound.
“Can I borrow two eggs?” Even clarifies. “I just forgot to buy some.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course.” Vilde grins. “I’d invite you inside, but it’s kind of messy. Do you mind waiting here?”
“No, no, that’s OK, Vilde,” Even says as kindly as he can.
“Cool! Be right back.”
Even rounds on Isak. “What the fuck was that?” he hisses. “She could’ve heard you.”
“Why, because she could see me so well?” Isak retorts. “Relax.”
“You didn’t know if she could see you or not. You were testing a theory.”
“Trust me, I’ve tested this theory many times already. I wasn’t testing anything this ti—”
“Who are you talking to?”
Even looks to Isak for help, but Isak just shrugs. Looks smug when he does. “She can’t see me,” he reminds.
Even turns back to Vilde and hopes the smile he gives her is charming enough to disarm her. “Just got a call.”
“But you’re not holding a phone?”
“I mean, in a play I’m working on,” Even improvises. “I was rehearsing a scene where I get a phone call.”
“Oh. Cool,” Vilde says, but she sounds doubtful.
“So, thanks for the eggs,” Even says, feeling awkward.
“Anytime.” To his relief, Vilde smiles. “Goodnight, Even.”
Neither Isak nor Even speak until they’re back in the apartment.
“Rehearsing a scene where you get a phone call?” Isak rolls his eyes. “I really hope that’s not true because you’re a shit actor.”
“So, you’re a ghost,” Even says, ignoring the jibe.
“What’s the difference?”
“One makes me sound like Casper, the other makes me sound like—”
“—Phantom of the Opera?” Even guesses.
Isak scowls. “What? No. The guy with the mask? No. I’m not that pretentious.”
Even shrugs. “It’s a good musical.”
“Maybe spectre,” Isak muses. “Spirit? Revenant?”
“What, are you having some kind of paranormal identity crisis?”
Isak glowers at Even and a strong wind nearly knocks him over. He clutches his chest and takes a few deep breaths, but glares back at Isak. “We need to talk about the shit you do when you’re grumpy.”
Isak rolls his eyes again, but the balance has been restored. Even runs a hand through his hair, then glances over at his canvas.
“What was with the colors?” Even asks. He thinks he knows the answer, but he needs Isak to confirm it.
Isak shrugs. “I wanted to know if you saw anything, even if it was just a blur of colors of the things I'm wearing.”
“I figured. But you heard me move the chair even though your friend didn’t.”
“Yeah, why? The chair made the noise, not you. Why wouldn’t he have heard it?”
Isak bites his lip and looks away. “I have a theory.”
“OK?” Even presses.
“I can’t tell you. Not unless I know I’m right or wrong. Because if I’m right, that would be a pretty depressing reality for me. And if I’m wrong, well, I don’t really know what that would mean.”
Even doesn’t expect Isak to stick around.
Granted, he’s not sure what he expects. He doesn’t have much experience in the ghosthunting realm. A part of him almost wonders if Isak is a product of his medication fucking with his mind. He had only gotten it refilled recently, after all, and the theory that something’s off about his pills is a lot less absurd and easier to believe than the apparent reality that he’s living with a ghost.
But there’s also the fact that the night he met Isak in the flesh was the night he slept best. His room was as warm as freshly baked bread. Which meant—
“Have you been staying in my room these past few nights?” Even asks the next morning, when he finds Isak in the living room, staring at a calendar on the wall. It’s alarming that there’s another presence in his usually empty apartment.
Isak doesn’t respond immediately, but he looks guilty and defensive at the same time. It’s kind of cute. At the very least, Even doesn’t think his imagination is good enough to make up someone who looks like Isak. As it is, he doesn’t even have the imagination to create subpar artwork. “I was trying to get your attention,” Isak says. “It’s not like I was on your bed or anything.”
“Creepy watching me sleep, don’t you think?”
Isak rolls his eyes. “I wasn’t watching you sleep. You weren’t doing much sleeping, anyway.”
“Doesn’t negate the creepiness.”
Isak hums noncommittally and flips a page on the calendar.
“You couldn’t pick up the mail yesterday,” Even says, confused.
“Happens sometimes. It’s like a glitch or something.”
“Yeah, like—if I’m frustrated or angry, I can’t touch things. It’s like I lose some of the quality of being human,” Isak explains.
“You must spend a lot of time not touching things, then,” Even mutters, but Isak seems too lost in thought to glare at him for the jab.
“What’s the date today?” he asks instead.
Isak waits for him to continue, and Even lifts an eyebrow. “That’s it,” he says slowly. “That’s the date. June 2.”
Isak’s figure loses some color; he looks less convincingly human than he did a second ago. Even can practically see through him, and that serves as a cue that something’s wrong.
“What?” Even asks.
“How old are you?”
Isak makes a show of looking around pointedly. “Unless your coffee table has trapped another ghost, yes, I’m asking you.”
“Going with ghost, then?”
Isak glares at him, and the temperature in the room drops.
The goosebumps littering every exposed part of Even’s body is instantaneous. “Wow, we really need to talk about your temper,” he says, but the seriousness is dulled somewhat by his chattering teeth. “I’m twenty-one.”
Isak shrugs and the room’s warm again. “I wasn’t actually mad; I’ve learned I have some control—wait, twenty-one?”
The fact that Even’s apparently living with a ghost who has temper tantrums and uses his strange temperature controlling abilities to make a fool out of Even sours his mood. So, he just scowls at Isak and retreats into the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. He’s never wanted to go into work more. He almost wants to see if he pick up an extra shift even though he doesn’t normally work on Sundays.
“What year were you born?” Isak follows him into the kitchen.
Even sighs in frustration. “‘97.”
Even glances over at him and he understands why Isak’s asking year-related questions so insistently.
“You’re trying to figure out how old you are now,” he guesses.
“I’m—I’ll be nineteen. Soon,” Isak adds.
Isak doesn’t look nineteen. He looks closer to sixteen, maybe seventeen. There’s something distinctively youthful about him.
“How old do you remember being?” Even asks.
Even’s proven right when Isak answers. “Sixteen.”
Inside Even’s apartment.
Somehow, Isak had lost track of how many years had passed. To him, the three years had felt like a mere handful of days, and the new knowledge has an immediate impact on his mood. Isak isn’t glaring daggers at Even, but he mopes and that’s worse.
Even puts on a hoodie over his T-shirt, but the temperature keeps dropping until his half-empty glass of water turns into ice and Even stands in his living room, bundled up in his winter coat and a scarf, his nose leaking, while snow falls around him, blanketing everything he owns in a mass of white.
Ultimately, he leaves the apartment out of necessity more than anything else, and the 28 ºC weather that greets him when he steps outside is like immediate whiplash.
He kills some time with the boys, but he can’t stop thinking about the mess he’s going to find when he gets back to his apartment. Either there’s going to be a blizzard raging or, assuming Isak manages to cheer up, everything he owns will be wet. It’s probably time to eat his own arm because living with a ghost who doesn’t pay his half of the rent, triggers location-selective snowstorms, and makes Even feel crazier than normal isn’t worth it.
“Yo, earth to Even.”
Elias snaps his fingers in front of his face, and Even looks up. He’s vaguely aware of the concerned look Mikael is shooting him, but he tries to assuage it with a smile.
“Sorry, just didn’t get much sleep.”
The lie suffices, and Even tunes back into the boys’ conversation. Tries to participate. Forces himself not to think about the definite doom, gloom, and grump wrapped in a tall, blonde package of gray, maroon, and green waiting for him in his apartment.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mikael asks when they leave Mutta’s apartment and walk in the direction of the tram station.
“Nothing,” Even says.
He’s glad they’re walking, glad Mikael can’t fix him with his patented I’m-your-best-friend-don’t-try-and-pull-a-fast-one-on-me look that usually makes Even surrender.
“Bullshit. You said maybe ten words the entire time we were hanging out. So, talk. Or, I swear, I’ll follow you to your apartment and won’t leave until you do.”
The threat of Mikael seeing his snow-covered apartment gives Even a solid incentive to surrender. At least partially.
“I’m just—I don’t know. Having second thoughts about the apartment,” Even admits.
“How come? I thought you were all for it.”
Even shrugs. “Like I said, don’t know. Maybe I just need to stick it out for a bit.”
After a moment, Mikael puts a hand on Even’s shoulder and squeezes. “Listen, you don’t have to. No one’s gonna give you shit for moving back home or whatever you wanna do. The only thing I might give you shit for is moving back in with Sonja. Because that’s not a good living situation for either of you.”
“Trust me, I know,” Even mutters.
They talk until Mikael’s tram comes, then Even crosses over to the opposite station and waits for his own. He holds Mikael’s words close to his heart—maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he moved home. His mom would certainly appreciate it. She always thought Even left the nest too early. Not to mention, he certainly doesn’t have to spend however long of his life fearing indoor snowstorms.
Even unlocks the door expecting the worst, but there’s no blizzard.
Nothing’s wet, either.
And his apartment’s base temperature has been restored.
Isak’s biting his nails in the kitchen, and Even thinks he sees a hint of relief in his eyes when he looks up and meets Even’s gaze.
“Hi,” Isak says.
Even looks around his living room a little more carefully to ensure his first glance wasn’t deceiving. It’s like the snowstorm never happened.
“I don’t know what happened,” Isak blurts, tracking Even’s gaze.
“You didn’t do it on purpose?”
Isak shakes his head. “It took me a while to figure out how to control the temperature when I’m mad or something, but it’s never gotten out of hand like this. So, I was going to apologize.”
“Was going to?” Even’s eyebrows furrow.
Isak lifts a shoulder in a shrug. “By making you dinner. But that didn’t work out well. I’d get the stove lit, then I’d try to put the pan on it or whatever and the flame would just go out.”
Even notices the pans and pots and an assortment of hastily assembled ingredients sitting on his counter.
“—so, I improvised,” Isak continues.
He gestures toward the plate in front of him, and Even moves a little closer to take a look. It’s a piece of untoasted bread with a few slices of cold cheese and a disturbing mixture of spices. It looks wholly unappetizing.
“You don’t want to eat it,” Isak says, a hint of an accusation in his tone.
Even flounders. “No, I—” It’s true. He doesn’t want to eat it. “I ate already. But we can split it.” At least they can share the starchy, spice-infused terror.
“Split it?” Isak looks confused.
Isak looks down at the bread like he’s never seen it before, and Even feels stupid.
“You can’t eat?” Even asks.
“Only human hearts.”
The corners of Isak’s mouth tug up. He looks like he’s attempting a small smile, but the resulting grin overtakes his face, lights him up. Young and real. Even can’t describe what it’s doing to his insides, but it warms him all over.
“Kidding,” Isak says. “I’ve just never felt hungry.”
“So, you don’t know if you can eat?”
Isak nods, then finds a knife and splits the bread in two. He looks nervous when he picks up his half. Even picks up the other piece, but watches Isak carefully.
“Stop that,” Isak grumbles.
“Staring at me like I’m a freak.”
“I’m not staring at you like you’re a freak.”
“Well, would you stare at any other person this hard when they’re about to eat something?” Isak snaps.
Even half-expects it to start snowing again, but thankfully, it doesn’t. To abate some of Isak’s nerves, he knocks his half of the bread against Isak’s and Isak glances up at him with narrowed eyes.
“What was that?”
Even shrugs. “So we can take a bite at the same time. Cheers.” He does it again and raises the bread to his lips and takes a bite when Isak does. He doesn’t know what’ll happen, but it’s anticlimactic. Isak chews, swallows, and doesn’t start puking whatever he has left of his guts out.
“Ugh,” Isak says before Even can feel too relieved.
“What? Do you feel sick?”
“Yeah, that’s gross as shit.”
“Did you make it this bad on purpose?”
“What? No,” Isak says defensively.
Even looks at him skeptically. “Thought you wanted to get rid of me.”
“I did,” Isak concedes.
Isak takes another bite and grimaces before putting the bread down. “But nothing.”
“You changed your mind.”
“Jesus Christ, is talking to you always this difficult?”
Isak scowls. “I found out I’ve been alone for three years. You’re the only person who can see me and talk to me. So, yes, I’ve changed my mind about getting rid of you.”
“What about your theory?”
“What about it?”
“Are you going to tell me?”
Isak shrugs. “Maybe, just not yet.”
Even quickly realizes Isak’s lonely.
For all his snark and bite, his mood sours whenever Even sleeps or goes to work. The apartment becomes colder and he comes home and sometimes finds a literal dark cloud hanging over Isak’s head, threatening the possibility of an imminent thunderstorm. But since he knows Isak’s capable of creating snowstorms, he decides against complaining and exacerbating a disaster.
“Why do you have all this stuff?” Isak asks one day without any preamble when Even gets home from his shift at KB. There’s no thundercloud hanging above his head. Even’s relieved.
“Hello to you, too,” Even mutters.
Isak ignores him and continues. “I never see you doing anything.”
Isak’s kneeling in front of Even’s blank canvas and easel.
“Maybe because I’m not any good.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
Isak shakes his head. “I’ve seen some of your stuff. It’s good.”
“You’re telling me you snooped through my stuff?” Even lifts an eyebrow.
“For fuck’s sake, can you stop accusing me of doing creepy shit? You’re forgetting I’ve been here for three years. I was here when you moved in. I was here when you unpacked. So, no. I didn’t snoop through your stuff. I just happened to see it.”
“You saw it because you were standing over my shoulder,” Even points out. “Without my knowledge. That’s a form of snooping.”
“You’re a form of annoying,” Isak grumbles under his breath. “Why are you deflecting?”
“I’m not deflecting.”
Isak sits down next to him, and Even almost expects to feel cold—this is perhaps the closest he’s been to Isak, but he’s pleasantly surprised to find he isn’t.
“What kind of powers do you have?” Even asks curiously.
“Powers?” Isak scoffs. “You’re really trying to tell me this isn’t deflection?”
“I haven’t been painting because I don’t know what to paint. Happy?”
“I’m dead and I’m stuck in this apartment with nothing to do and no one to talk to besides you, so yeah, I’m fucking thrilled,” Isak deadpans.
Even shrugs. “Your turn.”
“My turn for what?”
“I asked you a question.”
“You mean the stupid one about my powers?” Isak rolls his eyes. “I can make the place I’m in colder, but that’s just a regular ghost thing, I guess. Not like I’m Superman’s ghost.”
“You might as well be what with all I know about you.”
“Why do you need to know anything about me?”
“Because—you’re here, we talk, why not?”
“I’m dead,” Isak says flatly. “It’s a waste of time.”
“What is?” Even asks, confused.
“Getting to know me or trying to be my friend or whatever it is you’re doing. Not like you’re ever going to be able to say to anyone, ‘Hey, this is my friend Isak.’ So, don’t try.” Isak’s voice is firm and he stands. Somehow, Even feels colder when Isak leaves him alone on the couch.
For the rest of the night, Isak doesn’t say a word to Even. He just sits on the kitchen floor and idly plays with a lighter. The flame doesn’t last long. Not even long enough to light a joint, Even thinks.
Long after he’s gone to bed, he hears the faint flick coming from the lighter. He only realizes what Isak’s doing when he starts falling asleep.
Isak’s in a bad mood, but he’s trying not to let it affect Even.
Isak spends a few days vanishing into places Even doesn’t frequent. At least, that’s Even guess for his disappearance. He initially worried that Isak may have vanished altogether, but when a snowflake fell on his counter and melted, he relaxed.
Toward the end of the fourth day, Isak floats out from the coat closet, looking withdrawn.
Gray, maroon, green.
“Hi,” Even says.
“Hi.” When Isak sits on the couch, Even rewinds the movie he’d been watching. “You don’t have to,” Isak protests.
Even shrugs. “It’s OK, just started a few minutes ago.”
They watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in silence. Even can’t help but look over at Isak, whose gaze is transfixed to the screen. He doesn’t know why he’s more captivated by Isak than the movie, but Isak doesn’t look at him once, not even when his staring should become obvious.
“That was—I don’t know,” Isak says after the end credits have rolled by and it’s just Isak and Even, sitting in silence.
Even looks at him. Waits.
“Would you do it? Erase something so you don’t have to deal with the pain?” Isak asks quietly.
“I don’t think so,” Even says after a moment’s consideration.
“You don’t think so?” Isak finally meets his gaze.
“I just—I think if I met someone I loved, who made me feel everything I’ve never felt before, I wouldn’t want to erase it, no matter how bad it got.”
Even can’t help but laugh a little. “What do you mean why?”
Isak shrugs. “Why wouldn’t you want to erase it? If you had something great and lost it, wouldn’t it be easier not to remember it?”
“Maybe for a while, but it’s like—it’s like when you try to numb yourself with one thing or another and put off dealing with reality, well, reality’s just going to catch up with you later. And after days, weeks, months, years of numbness, getting used to feeling again can be more painful than heartbreak. Heartbreak has an expiration date.”
“You think so?”
Even just shrugs in response, wonders if Isak will share his stance on the matter. When he doesn’t say anything for several long minutes, Even gives up hope.
“I wish I could erase all the memories of the life I had,” Isak finally mutters, so quietly that Even has to strain his ears to hear. “Even if I could, it wouldn’t matter. Because I wouldn’t lose much. It was all fake.”
Even wants to press, wants to ask Isak what he means, but he suspects this is all Isak will give him for the night. Isak gives him a tight-lipped smile and leaves Even alone again.
Isak soon becomes a fixture in Even’s life.
For some reason, he’s still adamant about not being friends. He’s guarded and cuts himself off when he thinks he’s revealed more than Even needs to know. But there's no denying that Isak is now a constant, perhaps more so than anyone else.
Even starts buying an extra meal when he orders take-out. He learns that when Isak doesn’t like something, he’ll wrinkle his nose and complain about Even’s shitty taste in food, but he still eats it. When he likes something, the room becomes warmer, he looks young and happy, and, because he apparently has a compulsion to complain about Even’s shitty taste in something, he complains about Even’s shitty taste in movies instead.
“You pick something, then.”
Even had bought kebab for dinner, and he knows he’s made the right choice because even though Isak doesn’t feel hunger, he scarfs the food down like he’s been starved.
“For real? Or are you just gonna shit on me for not liking pretentious movies again?” Isak asks around a mouthful of food.
“I won’t shit on you.”
Isak gives him a skeptical look, but he puts down his food long enough to find the movie he wants.
“Napoleon Dynamite?” Even’s honestly pleasantly surprised, and Isak hears as much in his voice because he rolls his eyes.
“I said I wanted to watch Transformers once,” he grumbles. “Doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I watch.”
“Once is one time too many, Isak.”
“You know what you are, don’t you?”
“You’re a film elitist.”
“Thought you were gonna say pretentious snob.”
Isak shrugs. “That, too.”
They’re a few minutes into the movie when Even realizes Isak’s staring at him. “What?” Even tears his gaze away from the screen.
“Why don’t you do it, then?” Isak asks.
Even shrugs. “I make art, not films.”
“But you love one more than the other.”
“I never said that.”
“But it’s obvious,” Isak argues.
Even raises an eyebrow. “Were you studying to become a career counselor when you were 16?”
Isak shakes his head. “No, I like biology.”
Even knows so little about Isak that he doesn’t expect the little tidbit. It’s not much, but it’s a small something.
“Why do you think I love one more than the other?”
“Other than the fact that it’s obvious?” Isak shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe you don’t. Just seems like you might.”
Even doesn’t know how he knows with this much certainty. But he does. “You’re lying,” Even says.
“Yeah, you’re lying.”
“I’m not lying!”
“You just lied again.”
Isak scowls. “Piss off.”
“After I treated you to dinner and a movie? You hurt me, Isak.”
Isak just rolls his eyes in response, and Even grins.
“You’re supposed to be watching the movie, not me,” Isak mutters.
“You have a tell, you know.”
Even nods. “When you lie. You’re not that smooth.”
“Humor me, then. What’s my tell?”
“You raise your eyebrows, you can only make eye contact for about five seconds, and your voice gets all high.”
Isak looks taken aback. “That’s not—that can’t be true.”
“You could be right,” Even concedes. “I don’t know you that well, after all. But were you lying?”
Isak looks openly guilty, like he’s worried that attempting a lie might confirm all of Even's theories. “I looked you up,” he admits.
“You looked me up?”
Isak nods. “I found this interview thing. A video where you’re talking about Sarah Palin and Putin and Barbie and how much you like Baz Luhrmann.”
Even knows the video. The day Mikael filmed it is still fresh in his mind even though it was nearly five years ago.
“Wait, how did you find it?”
Isak shrugs. “Your laptop.”
“You’ve been using my laptop?”
“What do you think I do when you’re gone all day? Go around haunting the other tenants?” Isak scoffs. “Anyway, you studied film, didn’t you? So, why don’t you do it?”
“Thought we weren’t friends.”
Isak seems surprised, but he nods slowly. “We’re not.”
“Then, I don’t have to tell you.”
“Guess you don’t.”
Even almost feels disappointed that Isak gives up so easily, but he shouldn’t have expected much else.
It snows again and Isak is a mess.
Even has no idea what’s happening.
Isak’s angry and sad and losing control—Even knows that much. Why he’s angry and sad and losing control, Even has no idea. For his part, he knows he hasn’t done anything to piss Isak off. He couldn’t have, considering he’d gotten back from his shift at KB less than ten minutes ago and his apartment had looked like the outside of an igloo ever since he’d walked in.
Before Even has time to figure out what’s wrong, though, there’s a knock at the door. Considering the state of his living room, he decides against answering, but the knocks become more insistent.
Fuck his life.
It’s Vilde. They’d taken the elevator together. She knows he’s home. He opens the door just a crack, and though he ensures she can’t see the snow inside, she still looks alarmed.
“You don’t look very well. Are you sick?”
“No.” Even starts to shiver in his T-shirt, and there’s no other way out of this. “I mean, yes. I’m sick. Very contagious. But I’ll talk to you later, yeah, Vilde?”
He doesn’t wait for her response before he slams the door. He’ll make up for it later. Maybe he’ll offer her a free coffee at KB, courtesy of him. Whatever. Isak’s the main priority right now. Isak, who’s insistently playing with a lighter, but whose hands are shaking so much that he can’t even get it lit for a second. Even crouches down in front of him, takes the lighter, and after a moment’s hesitation, holds Isak’s shaking hands in his own.
Isak’s entire body stills.
His hands aren’t as cold as Even expected. In fact, it becomes warmer the longer Even holds on to it, and after a few seconds, it stops snowing. The snow doesn’t melt and it’s still chilly, but Even relaxes a little and pulls Isak to his feet.
“What’s wrong?” he asks carefully.
They’re standing so close that he feels Isak’s entire body start to tremble. He can’t tell if Isak’s crying or having a panic attack or what. But he’s not making a sound, and that’s more frightening than anything else. Even doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, so he does the only thing he can think of to try and comfort Isak.
He throws one arm over Isak’s shoulder and the other around his waist and pulls him into a hug. Isak’s arms stay limp by his sides. “It’s OK, it’ll be OK,” Even mutters and tries to console Isak by rubbing up and down his back.
A few minutes pass and Even moves to pull away when Isak’s hands are suddenly around him, clutching him tight, like he’ll disintegrate into nothing if he lets go. For a reason Even doesn’t quite know, the thought of Isak ever disintegrating into nothing fills him with dread. Even gets attached to people easily, he knows that; he had just never anticipated becoming attached to someone who only exists in his world.
The snow starts melting, and Even becomes aware that his socks are soaked through. It’s uncomfortable, but Isak’s still holding on to him, and Even can put his own discomfort on the backburner for a while longer.
“Didn’t snow in the bedroom,” Isak finally mumbles, and Even unconsciously shivers when Isak’s lips brush against his neck.
“OK.” Even pulls back from the hug and doesn’t miss the way Isak’s face falls. He looks dejected all over again until Even tugs his arm and pulls him along into the bedroom when he realizes Isak hadn’t thought to follow. “What, you came in here all the time to freak me out when I didn’t know you lived here and now you have your reservations?” Even teases, but he smiles kindly.
Isak’s mouth twitches, but he doesn’t meet Even’s gaze. Even takes a few seconds to get rid of his wet socks in favor of dry ones before lying down on the bed. Isak’s eyes keep darting back and forth between Even and the floor until Even extends his hand toward him. Not even a second passes before Isak takes his hand and lies down next to Even.
They inch closer, and all it takes is for Even to start to put his arm around Isak before Isak wraps his arms around Even, resuming their hug. He runs his fingers through Isak’s hair, rests his chin on top of Isak’s head, absently plays with his fingers, pulls him closer, and he realizes with a jolt what’s off. He can’t smell Isak.
There’s no scent to him. He feels like his nose is stuffed even though he's not actually sick.
“Are you cold?” Isak asks, his voice quiet.
“Holding me, does that make you cold?”
Even holds Isak closer to make his point clear. “No,” he says again, tangling their limbs together. He runs his hands over Isak’s back, over the fabric of his green jacket, and wonders. “Can you take this off? Or are you, uh, stuck in it?”
Isak doesn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried to take it off.”
It’s odd to Even—the lack of apparent need to try. Isak didn’t know he could eat, but he’d also never tried. Isak didn’t know if he could take off the clothes he’d been wearing for three years, but he’d never tried that, either.
“Do you want to?” Even asks.
“What if I can’t?” Isak sounds nervous. And Even realizes that’s what’s holding him back. He’s afraid to find out that he can’t do the things he did without a second thought when he was human.
Even strokes Isak’s hair. “Not a big deal if you can’t. Still a pretty dope jacket.”
Isak rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling like he doesn’t want to when he sits up, looks at Even, then takes off the jacket, leaving him in the maroon sweatshirt and gray jeans. Just the minor absence of green from the ‘gray, maroon, green’ equation that was synonymous with Isak seems significant. Isak settles back into Even’s arms and it’s better without the weight of the jacket.
“It’s the 15th,” Isak says into Even’s chest. “I’m turning nineteen is less than a week.”
“When?” Even asks.
“That made you sad?”
“Scared,” Isak admits. “I don’t remember what happened to me, Even. I don’t know why I’m stuck here in this apartment in these clothes. I wish I knew.”
It’s the most Isak’s given him. “So, you don’t know how you—”
“No,” Isak says before Even can complete his question. “I don’t know how. I looked it up.”
“Looked it up?”
“Yeah, that’s why I first started using your laptop,” Isak explains. “No one else stayed long enough for me to—doesn’t matter. But I didn’t find anything. There wasn’t an obituary or—or anything. Guess I wasn’t important enough.”
“But there should be,” Even says slowly. “Important or not, they write obituaries for everyone, not just famous people.”
Isak shrugs. “Maybe they didn’t get enough information about me to write one. My mamma wouldn’t have been a good person to talk to, so. I'm not surprised.”
“What about the hospital?” Even asks after a few minutes.
“What about it?”
“What if I went there and asked for your file?”
“You don’t know which hospital I was in,” Isak points out. “I don’t even know. Maybe I died here and that’s why I’m stuck here.”
“Still worth a try. The hospital or police or whatever. There has to be a record somewhere.”
Isak shakes his head. “Not yet. I want to know, but—but I also don’t. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah. I get it.”
Isak tilts his chin up to look at Even and smiles. It’s sweet. Soft. With the way they’re positioned, Even can’t help but think it would be really easy to kiss him. “Thanks,” Isak says. “Vilde must’ve been shocked when she saw the snow, huh?”
“Didn’t let her see,” Even mutters, reeling a little from the thought lodged in his head. He wants to kiss Isak. He wants to kiss Isak? He dismisses it as a fluke. He just hasn’t had this kind of physical affection since Sonja. And that had been a while back.
Even holds Isak tighter. “Don’t be.” He means it. Even though his floor’s wet along with most of his things, he doesn’t care. Doesn’t have a single thing to gain from hearing Isak sound so sorrowful and apologetic. “Do you know if you can sleep?”
Isak shakes his head.
“Do you want to try?”
“Not really, I’m worried I won’t—” He trails off, but Even understands.
“You’re worried you won’t wake up.”
Isak nods. He looks stricken, he looks scared, he looks simultaneously younger and older than sixteen. “Do we have to?” he asks.
“No, we don’t have to,” Even says. "We can just lie here."
They argue about nothing and everything unimportant in soft voices, still clutching each other. The hours pass by and Even has to stave off the sleep in his eyes and struggle to stay awake. He thinks he dozes off at some point, but when he wakes up, Isak’s still there. Somehow, he looks well-rested even though he didn’t sleep.
“Morning,” Isak says, and Even’s not sure if it’s his imagination or if Isak actually looks shy.
“Morning,” Even returns with a smile.
Isak looks conflicted for a few seconds and Even’s about to ask him what’s wrong when he wraps both his arms around Even and hugs him again.
i thought this would only be three chapters but this got away from me a bit so i guess not!
also, just for reference this is pretty much the outfit and look i based ghost!isak on :)
Isak starts experimenting with his wardrobe.
Most of the time, he wears the jeans and maroon sweatshirt, ditching the green jacket almost entirely. But sometimes, he’ll walk around in the white T-shirt he has on underneath the sweatshirt, and he looks softer in white. Less rough around the edges than what the combination of gray, maroon, and green did to him.
“Can I try something?” Isak asks after dinner. It’s June 6, and he’s eyeing Even’s closet.
Even doesn’t know what he’s asking exactly, but he complies. “Sure.”
Isak looks at him, and Even wouldn’t have thought a ghost—least of all Isak the Grumpy Ghost—was capable of blushing. He understands why when Isak looks away and strips down to his boxers. What the sight does to Even’s insides is almost uncomfortable. He thinks he blushes, too. His stomach flips, and he has to glance away and pretend to be interested in the loose thread unraveling on his pants.
The excitement in Isak’s voice prompts Even to look up. He’s wearing the white T-shirt he had on earlier and a pair of gray sweatpants that belongs to Even.
He needs to get out of his house more often, needs to get laid or something, because his heart shouldn’t be beating this fast at something as mundane as Isak wearing a piece of his clothing.
“Is this OK?” Isak asks sheepishly when Even doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. “I just thought it would be more com—”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Even interrupts. It’s more than fine. He likes it. Maybe too much. “You look—you look nice. Comfortable.”
Isak nods, but he looks uncertain. Still, he crosses over to where Even’s standing and without meeting his gaze, quickly puts his arms around Even and hugs him.
“Thanks,” Isak mutters.
Even holds him almost gingerly. He can’t help but think that he’s digging himself a grave he might never emerge from if anything ever happened to Isak.
The hugging becomes a thing.
Even doesn’t know what it means—if it even means anything—but he knows it provides Isak with some sort of comfort. It’s understandable considering he’s gone three years without any kind of contact, physical or otherwise.
Isak initiates the hugs without ever meeting Even’s gaze, but when he pulls back, he’ll have that shy, soft look on his face that makes Even want to kiss him over and over on lazy mornings for the rest of his life.
Isak hugs Even when he comes home from work or from hanging out with the boys and before Even leaves the apartment. They hug when they wake up, they hug before Even goes to sleep, and while Even sleeps, Isak spoons him or lets Even spoon him. Isak spends the rest of the night reading or watching something on Even’s iPad with only the subtitles on.
“Does this mean we’re friends now?” Even asks one night. He’s feeling brave. He’d gotten back from a party the boys had invited him to a few minutes ago, and Isak had clung to him desperately the moment he’d entered the apartment. He hadn’t even had time to close the door when Isak pulled him into a tight hug and breathed him in.
Isak just scowls at him a little. “You’re drunk.”
Even’s tipsy; he’ll give Isak that. But he had made a conscious effort not to drink too much because he knew Isak would be waiting for him. It’s the same reason he’d left the party early—so early that his friends were convinced that he was secretly hooking up with someone. A part of him can’t help but wish he could drag Isak to these parties. “ Can you get drunk?” Even wonders.
“But you haven’t tried,” Even points out.
Isak rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to try right now.”
“Good, ‘cause I don’t have any alcohol.” Even holds Isak tighter and Isak just melts into the embrace. “So?”
“So what?” Isak mumbles into Even’s neck.
“Are we friends now?”
Even laughs. The vehement denial should sting and maybe it would have if Isak didn’t sound so grumpy and annoyed while simultaneously holding on to Even tightly. “No?”
“You’re saying you don’t wanna be friends?”
“You wanna be something more?” Even teases.
“I—no, what? Fuck you, that’s not what I meant,” Isak says heatedly.
“So, we’re friends?”
Isak groans. “No!” He doesn’t even try to extricate himself from Even’s grasp.
“Chill, OK, we’re not friends.” Even lowers his voice then, brings his mouth to Isak’s ear. “But we totally are.”
When he pulls away, Isak rolls his eyes, but he looks less exasperated than he does flushed.
“Can I borrow your laptop?”
Mutta lifts an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with the one you’ve got at home?”
“Not working,” Even lies.
The truth is it’s hard to do any research when Isak is always around. He supposes he could just take his laptop to work with him one day, but then Isak wouldn’t have much else to do besides turn his apartment into a giant popsicle or give Even’s neighbors a scare, both of which Even wants to avoid.
“Don’t snoop through my history.”
Even laughs, and opens up Mutta’s laptop. “Trust me, no one wants to know what’s in there.”
“Uh, what? Speak for yourself, I do,” Adam chimes in.
It devolves into a harmless argument quickly, but Even excuses himself and goes into Mutta’s bedroom. He turns on the incognito mode and types in “Isak Valtersen” on Google. He thinks he finds Isak’s Facebook account, but he can’t be sure and his privacy settings block Even from seeing much else. He knows he finds Isak’s Instagram account, but the account is set to private.
Other than the two social media accounts, Even comes up short. Isak had been right; there wasn’t much information on him—no obituary, no news article, nothing. Even uneasily hopes that the lack of information just means that his death wasn’t interesting enough to cover and not that Isak was violently murdered and no one knew about it.
Although, that would explain why Isak was lingering in his apartment like he had some unfinished business. It’s a stupid thought. Even returns to Isak’s Instagram page, his cursor hovering over Isak’s picture.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
Even startles, and the laptop slips from his grip, landing somewhere between his legs and the bed.
There’s a frown on Yousef’s face when he catches sight of Isak’s instagram page. “Do you know him?”
Even opens his mouth to answer when he pauses and takes a look at Yousef’s face. “Do you?”
Yousef has no reason to know Isak. Yousef went to Bakka, Isak went to Nissen, and Yousef was two years older than Isak. If Even didn’t know Isak pre-haunting, he doubts it’s likely Yousef did.
“I mean, not really. But I know of him.”
Yousef shrugs. “Because of Sana.”
“Sana knows him?”
Yousef nods, bemused. “How do you?”
Even flounders. He has no good explanation for how he knows Isak. “I—uh, just think I saw him at KB a few times,” he finally manages.
Yousef doesn’t look entirely convinced, but he smiles. “OK, well, you ready to head out for dinner?”
Sana. At least that’s a start.
“You’re supposed to open it. Kind of how gifts work.”
Isak narrows his eyes, then looks at the three wrapped packages in front of him. “But there are three.”
“You do know how to count,” Even returns sarcastically.
Isak rolls his eyes, but he picks up the gift in the middle.
“No, start with that one.” Even takes the gift from his hands and points to the one on the left. Isak starts unwrapping each in the order Even intended. The first is a pair of Ice Age 5 socks. The second is a pack of beer. The third is a store-bought cupcake, a pack of candles, and a blue sweatshirt. Isak opens all three, then stares at it like he doesn’t know what to do with it.
“Ice Age 5 came out, like, two years ago,” Isak says with a frown.
Even huffs out a laugh. “You’re welcome.”
Isak’s cheeks flush a faint pink. “I mean, thanks, but I just—I don’t get it.”
“I just thought, since you missed two other birthdays, you should get something for each year,” Even explains. “So, Ice Age 5 came out the year you turned seventeen. The beer’s for your eighteenth birthday. And well, the cupcake and stuff, that’s for now.”
Isak doesn’t say anything for several long minutes, and Even has second thoughts about all his gifts. Maybe he should’ve gone with Deadpool socks. Maybe he should’ve picked a different beer. Maybe he should’ve ditched the cupcakes and candles because, considering Isak’s dead and only has Even in his life, his birthday isn’t exactly a celebratory occasion.
“I could—” Even starts to say, but is interrupted by the pop of Isak opening one of the beer cans. He’s practically thrumming with excitement, and Even finds himself smiling. The yearning in his heart is spreading to the rest of his body like black mold, and Even’s entirely powerless to stop it. Isak thrusts the beer he opened into Even’s hands and opens another one for himself.
“Can I try this on?” Isak asks, holding the blue sweatshirt in his hands.
“I did get it for you,” Even reminds.
Isak brings the sweatshirt close to his chest and smiles privately, like he doesn’t want Even to see it. He takes off the maroon sweatshirt he has on and puts on the blue one. Even wonders if he should’ve gotten him a few more clothes; Isak still hasn’t completely recovered from the excitement of discovering that he isn’t stuck in the clothes he died in.
“Cheers.” Even knocks his beer against Isak’s and watches him take a sip. His eyes flutter shut and Even thinks he made the right choice by picking Tuborg.
Isak quickly downs more beers than Even; while Even has two, Isak has four. For a while, it seems like the alcohol has no effect on him until Even realizes that it just hasn’t caught up to Isak yet. His first hint is when Isak grins, wide and unreserved, and scoots closer to Even.
“Play ‘I’m Yours,’” Isak says, leaning into Even and looking over Even’s shoulder while Even works on making a dumb birthday playlist for Isak on Spotify. That’s Even’s second hint.
“‘I’m Yours’?” Even repeats, laughing.
“It’s not gay.” Isak sounds defensive and when Even looks over at him, he’s scowling.
“I didn’t say it was.”
“But you’re laughing.”
“Not because I think it’s a gay song.” Even frowns. “Which, I don’t even know what that means. What’s a gay song?”
Isak furrows his eyebrows, like he’s thinking, then shrugs. “Dunno. Why are you laughing then?”
“Because that’s the last song I expected you to like.”
Isak’s still scowling and Even wants him to stop. Wants him to go back to smiling the way he did when he wore the blue sweatshirt, when he took his first sip of beer, when he realized Even was creating a playlist for him. “Why?”
Even shakes his head, smiles at Isak, and plays I’m Yours. “Nothing. You’re just sweet.”
Isak’s almost instantly distracted by the song because he claps his hands together, cheers, starts singing off-key, and Even’s words go unacknowledged. Even quickly realizes that, for how much Isak seems to like the song, he doesn’t know any of the words for shit.
Everything is low-key. They eat pizza, then Even lights a candle and puts it on top of the cupcake.
“Make a wish,” Even says.
Isak raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think wishes are gonna be coming true for me anytime soon. Or ever.”
Even shrugs. “Still. It’s a birthday tradition if you’ve got a cake and a candle. And you have both, so.”
Isak rolls his eyes. The flame extinguishes the moment Isak stands in front of the cake, but he pretends to blow it out regardless.
“Don’t ask me what I wished for,” Isak warns, prodding a finger into Even’s chest.
Even smirks. “So, you did wish for something.”
“You just said—”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but you’ll never know.”
“But you—oomph.” Even sputters around the chocolate cake Isak shoves into his mouth to shut him up. Isak looks at Even with wide eyes for a moment before bursting into laughter. It’s the best thing Even’s ever seen, the best sound he’s ever heard. He doesn’t even have the energy to be annoyed despite the fact that he’s got frosting everywhere. “Holy fuck, you’re such a brat.”
“Am not.” Isak continues to laugh gleefully.
“Yeah, you are, a brat who’s going to regret doing that.”
Even holds up the other half of the cake, and Isak starts running in an attempt to dodge him. Even’s arms wrap around Isak’s middle and Even’s not entirely sure how it happens. There’s tussling and resistance and then finally, there’s a compromise on Isak’s end, which takes Even by surprise. They both lose their balance, and Even feels his back hit the floor painfully. He thinks Isak tries land on his side so he doesn’t injure Even, but Even’s doesn’t release his hold on Isak, and he feels like the wind has been knocked out of his chest when Isak’s weight follows.
“Ow, fuck, you’re really heavy for a ghost.”
Isak scrambles to get up, and he looks frustrated. “And you’re really stupid for a human,” he snaps. “Does it hurt? Is your head OK? Can you sit up?”
Even shakes his head then, takes advantage of the situation. It hurts, but the pain is bearable. But he makes a spectacle out of it. He closes his eyes, winces in pain, and clutches his shoulder. It works. Isak leans forward, his eyebrows drawn together in worry.
“Fuck. Shit. What is it? Where does it hurt? Even, can you just—Jesus shit, I’m going to fucking kill you.”
A surprised laugh escapes Isak, belying his words, when Even uses the opportunity to shove the rest of the cake into Isak’s mouth. There’s more cake on his face and on their clothes, but Even’s starting to become more aware of the position they’re in. Isak’s straddling him, and he should look ridiculous with chocolate all over his face, but as it is, he looks an endearing combination of annoyed and happy and worried and Even wants nothing more than to drag him into a kiss. If they can hug, Even has to believe they can kiss.
“Did I scare you?” he finally asks because the silence between them had started to become loaded with possibilities. Possibilities that were better off not being acted on.
Isak shakes his head, but there’s still a hint of worry on his face. “Can you sit up?”
“Can’t right now.” Even touches both sides of Isak’s thighs to make a point, and Isak flushes.
“Right.” Isak moves off of him, and Even misses the weight of Isak on his body. He extends his hand toward Even to help him up, and Even can’t help but laugh until he feels wetness in his eyes. “Did you hit your head that hard?” Isak asks, narrowing his eyes and looking entirely unamused.
“No, just—for someone who insists we’re not friends, you seem to care a lot about whether or not I’m hurt,” Even points out. He grins from ear to ear, even as Isak rolls his eyes and gives him a small shove.
“I don’t,” Isak argues.
Even holds up his hands in surrender, but Isak recognizes it for the fake concession it is.
“Oh, piss off.”
But there’s a small smile on Isak’s face, too, and Even knows, for certain, for the first time, that Isak does care about him in some capacity, however small it may be.
Isak’s staring at Even when he wakes up, and Even feels his face grow warm under the attention. He waves his hand in front of Isak’s face, puts his arm around Isak to bring him closer, then closes his eyes again.
“Too early for the creepy staring,” he mumbles.
“Sorry, I just—” Isak trails off, but he sounds embarrassed, uncertain, unlike the Isak Even’s used to.
Even opens his eyes, meets Isak’s gaze. “What?”
“I’m kind of a shit sometimes. Most times,” Isak says after a few seconds, giving Even a rueful smile.
“What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t thank you.”
Even feels relieved. “Oh, uh, I think you did.”
“No,” Isak says and his voice is firm. “I didn’t.”
Even just shrugs in response. “Doesn’t matter either way.”
“You had fun. I saw that. That’s what matters.”
Isak doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, but he moves closer to Even and puts a hand on his cheek. The gesture is so sweet and gentle and unexpected that Even feels his heart start pounding. “Thanks,” Isak says quietly. He doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t expound on it, but the one word seems weighted with more, and Even’s not sure how to begin unpacking it.
So, he just smiles. “Welcome.”
Even has wanted an excuse to see Sana ever since he found out that she’d known Isak, but there’s no way he can bring it up without giving Elias or Yousef (or realistically, both) a reason to be suspicious.
But before long, the opportunity presents itself, and he grabs it.
“I have to drop by the hospital and give Sana the key,” Elias says. “I can just meet you guys back at Yousef’s.”
“I’ll go with you,” Even says, and he must sound too eager because Mikael, Adam, and Mutta exchange looks.
“Uh, OK?” Elias sounds bewildered, too. “That’s chill.”
“Are you sure? She’s at the hospital,” Mikael says slowly, like he’s not sure Even heard Elias the first time.
Even nods; his friends know exactly why he dislikes hospitals, but he can will himself to put up with the sterile smell and the less sterile memories, if it means finding out something significant about Isak.
Realistically, Even knows he’s not going to be able to get much out of Sana. She’s interning at the hospital, she’s in the middle of working a shift, Elias is going to be right there the whole time—Even’s definitely not going to come out of this visit with much.
“Hi, where can I find Sana Bakkoush?” Elias asks one of the nurses.
“Reception, second floor.”
Sana and Even greet each other and Elias gives her the key and everything’s over disappointingly fast. Even doesn’t even time to bring up Isak in a way that would seem casual. Elias and Even are about to leave when a curly-haired guy with bushy eyebrows darts toward them. Darts toward Sana.
“Sana, Sana, something’s happening, we need to get his doctor in there,” the guy says.
Sana’s earlier look of boredom vanishes; she’s instantly alert. “What is it? Is he awake?”
The guy nods, looks like he’s trying not to get his hopes up while simultaneously getting his hopes up. “I think—I think he is.”
“What do you mean you think he is, Jonas?”
“I don’t know—he didn’t say anything, didn’t even open his eyes, but he moved. And I was holding his hand and—and Isak squeezed my hand. I swear. I think he’s conscious.”
Even’s enraptured by everything that’s unfolding in front of him that he almost misses the name. Isak.
“Wait, is this the same Isak who—” Elias starts to ask, but Sana cuts him off by nodding. She looks anxious. “Will you be OK? Do you want us to wait for you?”
Even hopes Sana will say yes, but regrettably, she doesn’t. “I need to check what’s going on, I don’t know how long it’ll take. See you at home. Tell mamma if I’m late. Bye, Even.”
With that, she’s off with the curly-haired guy—Jonas.
“What was that about?” Even asks quietly. “Do you know?”
Elias shakes his head. “Just—her friend. Isak Va—something.”
“What about him?” Even tries to keep his voice level, tries to make sure he doesn’t sound as eager as he did earlier.
“Something kind of fucked up happened to him, no one knew until several hours had passed, and he’s just been in a coma ever since.” Elias shudders. “Or, well, persistent vegetative state or something. That’s what Sana called it. It’s been, like, three years. Probably some kind of a fluke that he moved, honestly. Doubt it’s—”
Elias and Even turn when they hear the commotion. Sana and Jonas exit the room they’d entered, both wearing similar expressions of disbelief. Everything’s chaotic. Someone’s being helped into a wheelchair and Even doesn’t have to see the face to know who it is.
He looks weaker than the Isak haunting Even’s apartment, but it’s Isak all the same. Jonas had been right; his eyes are still closed, but his hand seems to grips the wheelchair and he’s carted off somewhere, Sana and Jonas in tow.
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong or just pick at your food?”
Even doesn’t realize Isak asked him a question until he feels Isak nudge him. He glances up. “Huh?”
Isak frowns. “What’s the matter with you?”
Everything. Even’s not sure what it means, the fact that Isak is alive and apparently conscious. He wishes he knew what was going on, wishes he had a reason to know, a reason that doesn’t make him sound crazy. As it is, he feels like he’s losing his mind. Isak can’t be a ghost. Not if he’s alive. Which means Even must be hallucinating. Or something. He doesn’t know.
Isak looks at him unhappily, but he doesn’t press. Just eats the dumpling that sits untouched on Even’s plate.
“Where are you parents?” Even asks abruptly.
The mixture of expressions that cross Isak’s face is strange. Startled, then confused, then defensive. Even’s heard Isak mention Jonas in passing, the guy with curly hair he saw in the hospital, and it adds up. But beyond the fact that Isak lived with his mom, Even knows nothing. Isak never mentions his mother or father.
“Your parents,” Even repeats.
“What the fuck? Why are you asking me about my parents?”
“Just—where’s your mom? Did she live here when you—” Even trails off. He can’t say ‘died.’ Because apparently Isak wasn’t dead.
“Died?” Isak rolls his eyes. “You can say it, you know.”
Even remains silent, and Isak sighs. “I told you I don’t remember anything.”
“You said you didn’t remember how you became like this.”
“You mean died,” Isak corrects.
Even should just tell him. He should tell him what he knows, but he can’t bring himself to, not unless he knows for certain that Isak won’t be disappointed. But he just nods.
Isak shrugs. “We didn’t have the best relationship.”
“You and your mom?”
“Yeah. Didn’t have a great relationship with my dad after he walked out on us, too. Which, fuck—it doesn’t even matter, why am I telling you this?”
“Do you think your mom’s alive?” Even asks carefully.
For a few seconds, Isak doesn’t say anything. Then, he nods, looks definite, and it surprises Even. “Her mail kept coming here for a while, but then it stopped, so I think it’s been rerouted to another place,” Isak says.
Even had noticed that, too, noticed how the letters to Marianne Valtersen had stopped altogether. The ones addressed to Isak were few and far between, but they still showed up in Even’s mailbox from time to time.
“Why didn’t you have a good relationship with your mother?” Even asks.
But he’s pushing it because Isak laughs and there’s no humor in the sound. “What the fuck is this? Your idea of bonding over our fucked up lives or something? What, you think I’m going to tell you my family sob story and you’re going to tell me yours and we’re going to be broken together forever? Because if you think that’s going to happen, you need to go out and get a life. Fucking date someone, hang out with your friends, stop letting your life revolve around me.”
Even shakes his head, but doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t want to fuel Isak’s fire. Isak’s words are enough for him to deduce that whatever relationship he had with his mother was bad. Worse than Even initially imagined. But it’s more than that. Even knows Isak hasn’t just blurted out hurtful words in the spur of the moment; he’s been carrying it with him for a while.
“Sorry, I was just curious,” Even finally says to abate some of Isak’s anger because it starts to feel a little cooler in his apartment.
Isak just huffs. “Whatever.”
“Do you want the rest of this?” Even gestures toward his fried rice, hopes Isak will recognize it for the peace offering it is.
But Isak just shakes his head and gets to his feet. “Don't feel like eating anymore.”
Even makes a mental note to himself: Don’t ask Isak about his mom.
Isak’s most recent bout of moodiness doesn’t last as long as the ones he’s prone to having. He sulks for a few hours, then climbs into bed with Even.
Even’s mind is buzzing. He’s itching to talk to Sana, maybe even Jonas if he can attempt that, and find out more before he tells Isak anything. Isak touches his arm hesitantly, and Even turns to face him. Isak practically glows in the dark; Even doesn’t know how he’d never noticed that before.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Isak says quietly.
“I wasn’t asleep.”
Isak drops his hand, and it feels like there’s distance as vast as the Pacific between them. Isak doesn’t make a move to get any closer and neither does Even.
“Sorry for earlier,” Isak says after a few seconds.
“I was out of line.”
“So was I.”
Isak just stares at him.
“What?” Even asks.
“Nothing, you’re just not usually this—” Isak makes an aborted gesture with his hand.
“This?” Even presses.
“Is something wrong?” Isak asks instead, sounding uncertain. “I mean, besides, you know, what happened earlier.”
“No, everything’s fine.”
Even feels uneasy, but he nods. “Promise.”
Isak hums, burrows a little closer, seems to wait for Even to do something. He tilts his chin up, looks at Even, and Even can’t really resist anymore. He puts his arm around Isak, and feels him relax into the touch. Even's sated, too.
“For the record, I don’t think you were out of line.”
“I was. Since we’re not friends and all.” Even keeps his voice light, but the sting of Isak’s continued and adamant refusal to be friends has been steadily seeping into his skin for the past few days.
Isak frowns. “You have to understand why we can’t be friends.”
“Yes.” Isak sits up and turns on the lamp beside him. He looks agitated and Even sits up, too.
Even waits for Isak to explain, but he doesn’t. Just fiddles with his fingers, growing more and more restless by the second. “What, does this have something to do with your theory?” Even guesses.
Isak’s silent, but he gives a quick nod.
“Well, what about it?”
“What if—what if I only exist in your world?” Isak asks.
“Like, in my head?”
“No one else can see me or hear me. I just—I know the mail proves I’m real, I know I have friends and family, but I don’t know. The more time goes by, the less real I feel. Like I’m not even going to exist in your world for long. Like there’s an expiration date. On me.”
“You don’t,” Even finally says.
“You don’t just exist in my head or my world or whatever. You’re real.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I can touch you.” Even gently brings his hand up to touch Isak’s cheek and they lay back down on the bed.
“Only you,” Isak points out, but he brings his own hand up to cover Even’s, linking their fingers together.
“I don’t know what that means,” Even admits. “But I do know you’re real.”
“I do. I saw you.” Even doesn’t know why it’s painful to reveal the truth, but if Isak’s right, if he really is starting to feel less real, like there's an expiration date on him, then they need to act fast. Need to do whatever they can to make things right.
Isak looks confused. “What do you mean you saw me?”
“At the hospital. You’re not dead, Isak. You’ve been unconscious. In a coma.”
“For three years?” Isak sounds skeptical, then something seems to dawn on him. “Persistent vegetative state, maybe. Not a coma.”
“Elias told me that’s what Sana said.”
“You saw Sana?” Isak’s voice cracks.
“And Jonas. And you. Well, the other you.”
“I—fuck, what does this mean? How am I here and there? I don’t get it. I’m so fucking confused.”
“I don’t know,” Even says honestly. “But I’ll find out. We’ll figure it out.”
Isak doesn’t look convinced. He's quiet for a few minutes, just looks dejected and worried. “You have to talk to her,” he finally says.
Isak shakes his head. “No, my mamma. She knows what happened to me.”
“How do you know that? You remember something?”
“No, but I know whatever it is—it happened here. I think that’s why I’m stuck here. ”
as always, thanks for reading and leaving comments! ❤
Even understands why Isak hadn’t felt compelled to log in to his Facebook account until now. Isak quickly becomes overwhelmed by the three years of information he’s missed out on, and by the transference of Isak’s energy, Even feels the same.
“What the fuck? Magnus is in a relationship with Vilde?” Isak practically yells.
Even’s not sure which is a bigger deal—that Magnus is dating Vilde or Vilde is dating Magnus.
“Of course, Jonas and Eva are back together again.” Isak rolls his eyes, and keeps up the running commentary while Even cooks dinner.
Isak starts by scrolling through his best friends’ accounts. Mahdi might also be seeing someone judging from the pictures he's tagged in, Even discovers.
“I can’t believe I’m the only one without a bo—” Isak freezes, meets Even’s gaze for half a second and coughs. “Without anyone.”
Even just goes with Isak’s amended words. “You’ve been brain-dead for the last three years,” he points out. “Not exactly an ideal dating situation.”
Isak scowls at him. “Persistent vegetative state.”
Even shrugs noncommittally and returns to the kitchen. He’s not entirely sure what Isak’s looking for, but he suspects Isak’s trying to reintroduce himself to his old life now that he knows there’s still a chance.
This time, Isak actually shouts, and alarmed, Even accidentally cuts his finger instead of the onion he’d been chopping. He holds his finger tightly to try and stop the bleeding, but rushes out into the living room.
Isak’s looking at the computer screen with wide eyes and there’s a disbelieving smile spreading across his face. “You won’t believe this. Sana’s dating someone. Sana. ”
Even has to resist the urge to groan. He doesn’t know what he’d been expecting, but he had started spending his days in fear, what with the words ‘expiration date’ hanging over his head and all. “Yeah, my friend Yousef,” Even finally supplies, pressing down harder on the cut with the hem of his T-shirt.
“Wait, you know the guy she's dating? Why the fuck didn’t you—what happened to your hand?”
Isak’s suddenly in front of him, having abandoned the laptop.
Even shakes his head. “Just a cut.”
“Stop doing that. You’re going to make it worse.” Isak swats away the hand that had been pressing down on the cut, and gingerly takes Even’s hand in his own. “It’s not that bad. Pretty shallow.”
Even raises his eyebrows. “I did tell you it was just a cut.”
“But we should put some antiseptic on it,” Isak continues, ignoring him.
“Don’t have any.”
Isak stares at him. “Why wouldn’t you have any antiseptic?”
“Why would I?”
“Uh, in case something like this happens?”
“That’s what soap and water is for.”
“And I’m the brain-dead one,” Isak grumbles. He shakes his head and floats away. Even hears him rummaging around in the bathroom, and Isak returns with his aftershave.
“You want me to help you shave?” Even asks sarcastically. “Hate to break it to you, but I don’t think you really need any help.”
“Not like you’re Hans Langseth yourself,” Isak retorts.
“Anyway, this’ll do,” Isak continues, taking Even’s hand again and putting some aftershave on it. As much as he’d been enjoying being doted over, the sting is worse than Even had anticipated, and he rips his hand away from Isak’s grip.
“Ow, fuck, are you sure you’re not just making this worse?”
Isak rolls his eyes at Even’s overreaction. “A second’s pain is worth not getting infected.” Even’s not sure why, but he feels a pang in his chest. Isak should be in the hospital with Sana, interning rather than lying unresponsive on a hospital bed, the same bed he’s been stuck in for three years. He’d be good at it, too. Despite being stuck in a 16-year-old’s mind and body, he’s ten times smarter than any 21-year-old Even’s met.
“What?” Isak asks, and Even realizes he’s been staring. He quickly shakes his head, and jumps a little when he feels Isak’s fingers prod the corners of Even’s mouth. Isak must seriously have no clue what he’s doing to Even, what he’s been doing to Even, because his thumb is brushing against Even’s lower lip like it’s nothing, like he’s not bursting apart at the seams with unbridled want the way Even is.
Isak coughs. "You had some—"
But Even doesn't find out what exactly he had because as soon as he takes a step back, Isak stops talking and Even watches Isak’s hand drop from his periphery.
“I think I smell something burning,” he lies. The stove isn’t even on, but Isak nods, and he looks almost disappointed.
“Hi, Even,” Sana greets. She looks puzzled to see him.
Her confusion’s justified; once Even had gotten an idea of Sana's shift timings from Yousef, he'd shown up at the hospital on an impulse.
“Hi, Sana, how’s it going?”
“Good.” She waits, fixes him with a raised eyebrow, and he tries not to crack and reveal every little thing. He’s not entirely successful.
“Uh, how’s Isak doing?” he blurts.
Sana’s bemusement magnifies. “Isak? How do you know Isak?”
“I just met him at a couple of parties a while back,” Even lies as smoothly as he can.
For a few unnerving moments, Even thinks Sana will see through his lie, but then she just nods. “He’s conscious, but he’s not very responsive yet.”
“How do you mean?”
“Like, he’s awake and they’ve been monitoring his brain activity. He recognizes people, his friends, he’s aware of his surroundings, but he just hasn’t been verbally responding to any auditory or visual stimuli yet,” Sana explains.
“So—” Even starts, but he has no idea what to say. He’s confused. He hopes real Isak’s progress isn’t being hindered by the Isak in his apartment, but it’s the only explanation he comes up with.
Sana, sensing his confusion, gives him a rueful smile. “It’s normal,” she says. “It’s too early to say whether he’ll recover completely or how long it’ll take, but things are looking good for him. Especially considering how long he’s been in a vegetative state.”
Even nods, and not for the first time, feels weighed down by it all. He wishes someone else could see the Isak in his house, wishes he wasn’t alone in figuring everything out because he doesn’t even know where to start. There’s more at stake now; Even’s invested more of himself in Isak than he could’ve ever imagined. His head really is a mess.
“I didn’t know you were close to him.” Sana’s voice cuts through his clutter of thoughts, and Even attempts a small smile, but it’s getting harder to breathe. Even feels a hand on his arm, feels Sana lead him away from the reception, but he’s so focused on steadying his breathing that he doesn’t notice his surroundings.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
Even exhales and meets Sana’s gaze.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
He manages a nod and realizes they’re nowhere near the reception. They’re standing in front of a room, and this wing of the hospital is quieter. Some of his tension melts; it’s relieving not to have to hear nurses and doctors scrambling, machines beeping, people chatting idly as they wait, wait to find out something good or something that could wreck their lives.
“Do you want to see him?”
Even snaps out of his daze. He knows which room they’re standing in front of. He must nod because Sana says, “OK, I’ll wait out here. Let me know if you need anything.”
Isak’s eyes are open. Even half-expects him to roll his eyes and throw snarky jibes in Even’s direction, but nothing comes. His eyes track Even’s movements as Even stands by Isak’s bed.
A lot is different about Isak.
He doesn’t look sixteen, but he doesn’t look quite nineteen, either. He’s sporting some facial hair, unlike the Isak in his apartment, and his hair’s more unruly. Longer. What’s most off about this Isak is perhaps the lack of gray, maroon, and green. The combination of those colors had been the cause of Even’s migraines once upon a time, but he wants it back when he notes that the white and blue hospital gown doesn’t make Isak look soft, just weak and helpless.
“Hi,” Even finally says.
Isak’s gaze finds his, but it’s empty—devoid of any emotion. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t say anything.
Even’s not sure what prompts him to keep speaking; it might partly be out of a desperation to fill the silence. “Uh, I’m Even. You don’t know me, but well—actually, you kind of do. You like to remind me we’re not friends a lot. You think my taste in movies is pretentious as hell. And you won’t admit it, but you actually like the music I listen to. Which, honestly, not surprising, because Jason Mraz?” Even laughs a little, but his smile falters when Isak glances away. “But, uh, I guess it’ll always remind me of you—listening to I’m Yours. Um, let’s see, what else?” Isak’s eyes meet his again, and it encourages Even to keep going. “You’re the grumpiest, most sarcastic person I’ve ever met. But also the sweetest. Weird dichotomy. I like hanging out with you. Even though you think I’m a loser for ditching my friends and spending more time with you than anyone else. I guess it is pretty fucked up, but—I don’t know. You’ve made me feel alive, you’ve made me feel more than I’ve felt in a long time. And—and I want you to be OK. I need you to be—”
Even whips his head around. His stomach fills with dread when he realizes he doesn’t know how long Jonas has been standing there. Doesn’t know how much he’s heard. Can’t quite gauge exactly how crazy Jonas thinks Even is.
“Uh, Sana, she, uh—” Even starts to say and Jonas’ expression clears.
“Oh, you’re Even. Elias’ friend, right?”
“I’m Jonas. Isak’s friend.” He smiles, comes to stand on the other side of Isak’s bed, across from Even. “Has he—”
Even shakes his head. No response. Jonas nods like he hadn’t expected much else.
“How do you know him?” Jonas asks.
“Some party a few years ago.” The lie rolls off his tongue easier now. Maybe Jonas didn’t hear everything. Maybe he didn’t sound completely insane.
“Did you two have a thing?”
Even almost chokes on his own tongue. “What?”
Jonas shrugs, a small smile on his face. “You sounded like you were pretty into him, so.”
Even laughs uncomfortably, hopes Isak will never remember this part if he regains his consciousness completely. “Uh, no. No, no, never had a thing.”
Jonas gives him a look that Even can’t quite decipher before he shrugs again. “I can give you the visiting hours if you want.”
Jonas nods. “Yeah. You can just talk to him. It’s what I’ve been doing. Helps the doctors keep track of his brain activity, too. Because he can hear everything. His memory’s intact, so he remembers you. He just hasn’t gotten around to communicating verbally yet.”
If all of what Jonas said was true, Even thinks he must’ve confused the crap out of the Isak lying on the hospital bed.
Even hugs Isak when he gets home, and he instantly feels like the world isn’t spinning out of control. He wants to hope things will be fine, that the real Isak will somehow recover, and he’ll have Isak in his life, for as long as he wants Even. But he knows hope is dangerous, knows that things aren’t as simple as Isak regaining consciousness and responding verbally, not when there’s a part of him that’s still stuck in an apartment he lived in when he was sixteen.
“What was that for?” Isak pulls away and laughs a little, but he looks shaken. Tired. More transparent than he usually does.
“What’s wrong?” Even asks, ignoring his question. Something is off about Isak.
“Oh, uh, with me?” Isak shrugs, scratches the back of his neck. “Don’t know. I feel fine, though.”
Even can’t detect any overt signs that Isak’s lying, but he’s certain Isak’s not telling him the full truth, either.
“Are you OK?” Isak asks.
Even nods, but Isak’s looking at him strangely. “What?”
“Nothing. Did you—how long were you outside?”
“Outside the apartment?” Even asks, confused.
“Long enough to unlock the door.”
“Were you saying something? To me?”
Even raises his eyebrows. “Uh, through the door? No.”
Isak sighs and shakes his head. “Sorry, sorry, I feel fine, I swear—it must’ve just been in my head or something.”
“You know, hearing things isn’t exactly the most promising sign that you’re fine,” Even points out, smiling.
Isak puts his arms around Even’s neck, leans in like he’s going to rest his forehead against Even’s, but not quite. They’re close, so close, but it doesn’t even feel like enough. “Maybe not,” Isak concedes quietly. “It just felt like you were right there. Talking to me.”
Even freezes. Something falls into place in his head. He had been talking to Isak. Just not this Isak. “What was I saying?” he asks, cautious.
Isak’s cheeks flush, and Even’s not sure if he imagines it because he wants to be reassured, but he thinks Isak looks a little more solid. As soon as the thought enters his mind, though, Isak goes back to being partly transparent, like he’s still buffering. “Uh, that I’m grumpy and sarcastic and sweet. That listening to I’m Yours will remind you of me. That you like hanging out with me. The, uh—some other stuff.”
Even tries to figure out what it means that Isak, while sitting in his apartment, heard Even talking in a hospital kilometers away.
Isak opens his mouth to say something else, but another thought occurs to Even and he interrupts. “Did you hear anyone else?”
“Anyone else?” Isak looks confused.
“Yeah, like, someone else talking to you.”
Isak shrugs. “Yeah, but it was like boring stuff, so I tuned it out.”
“I don’t know, the news? Stuff about capitalism?”
Someone was reading the newspaper to Isak. It had to be Jonas. “Who did it sound like?”
Isak’s laughing now. “What? What are you talking about?”
“The voice in your head, Isak,” Even says urgently. “Reading the news and talking about capitalism. Who did it sound like?”
Isak doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, looks like he’s debating with himself about telling Even. Finally, he sighs. “Jonas. But I feel fine, I swear. It’s just an automatic thing, associating capitalism and stuff like that with Jonas. That’s the only reason.”
Even doesn’t know how to feel. Doesn’t know if he should feel afraid or relieved. As it is, he just feels like his insides are balling up into a dough of uncertainty.
“It’s not the only reason.” Even pulls away a little.
Isak frowns. “What are you talking about?”
“You heard Jonas talking to you. Not—not this you. The other you. The one who’s in the hospital. And I went to the hospital, too. To talk to Sana. But she let me see you, and that’s what you heard. You heard me talking to you.”
This time, it’s definitely not his imagination—Isak becomes more translucent.
“So, uh, what does that mean?” Isak asks.
Even shrugs, helpless. “I don’t know.”
“Is it good or bad?”
“I don’t know, Isak.”
Isak’s quiet. Even wants to assure him things will be fine, but he’s falling short on empty reassurances. Maybe the real Isak’s getting better, but Even has an uneasy feeling that he won’t recover completely unless the Isak in his apartment is gone.
“What if I was exorcised?” Isak deadpans.
Even can't help it; he laughs.
“What?” Isak asks, defensive. “That’s the only explanation.”
“I’m sure there’s another explanation.” Even takes a few steps closer to Isak and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Are you OK?”
“Did you mean it?”
“What you said in the hospital.”
Even swallows and nods. “All of it.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Isak muses. “That I make you feel alive when—”
“—you’re still alive,” Even reminds.
“In some ways, maybe. Not all.” Isak takes a shaky breath. “What if—what if you’re not the only person who can see me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I heard you talking to me, but I also heard Jonas. What if Jonas can see me, too?”
“I guess?” Even knows he sounds doubtful, but it’s a stretch.
“He could. He’s never been here. Not since I—not since what happened to me. And since I can’t leave the building, I’ve never had a chance to see him.”
“So, you’re saying—”
“—I’m saying we need to invite him over.”
Jonas, Even quickly realizes, is easy to get along with. He sees why Isak vibes with him, why they’re best friends. Jonas’ brand of humor is similar to Isak’s, but Even wouldn’t call them two peas in a pod, either. There’s just something about them that seems to fit.
Even meets Magnus and Mahdi and Eva and Eskild and a few others, all of whom he learns are bigger fixtures in Isak’s life than he could ever be. They take turns talking to Isak, and Even wonders if Isak can hear all of them. He’s only mentioned hearing Jonas.
They all stay past visiting hours, until the nurses kick them out for overstaying, but Sana buys them a few extra minutes. Even feels warm all over; despite the fact that Isak’s barely responsive, he has friends who’s stuck by side for the past three years while he was unconscious, friends who fight for Isak’s time to talk to him, to keep him updated on what’s going on in their lives, to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that they miss him.
He hopes Isak hears all of it.
Even couldn’t just invite Jonas, so he also invites Mahdi and Magnus over for beers. He’s not sure it’s the best idea, especially if only Jonas and Even can see Isak. But he decides he’ll deal with it as it comes.
“So, you live in Isak’s old apartment?” Jonas says as they take the stairs to his apartment. “Must be strange.”
“Wait, holy shit, you live in Isak’s apartment? Like, actually?” Magnus asks, his eyes wide in shock.
“That’s what he literally just said,” Mahdi says.
“I thought he meant, maybe, the apartment next to it or something,” Magnus defends. “You know, it’s weird, they could never sell the apartment for longer than two weeks after what happened to Isak. I guess word got around about what happened or something.”
All of Isak's friends refer to whatever happened to him all the time, but it’s obscure. So far, none of them have let slip to Even what actually happened to land him in the hospital in a vegetative state. But Isak had been right. Whatever happened to him had happened in Even’s apartment.
Even’s acutely aware of Isak getting to his feet the moment his friends enter the apartment. He looks less transparent, but Even’s not sure whether that’s telling of anything. On some days, at some times, he looks convincingly human. On other days, less so. The fluctuation is frequent and equally worrying.
Isak looks like he’s about to lunge and hug his friends, but Even’s quick to put his hand out, stopping him. No one has reacted to his presence, not even Jonas, which could only mean that Isak’s theory had been wrong.
“What are you doing?” Isak hisses. “They’re my friends.”
Even just shakes his head as discreetly as he can, and presses down on Isak's chest with a little more force. He must look strange, shaking his head to himself, his hand hovering mid-air, where Isak’s invisible chest is.
“You OK, Even?” Jonas asks, raising his eyebrows, and he feels Isak still beneath his hand. Jonas is looking right past Isak and Isak knows it.
Isak shrugs Even’s hand off roughly and floats through the bedroom door. Even looks after him, but turns his attention back to Jonas. At the very least, maybe he can learn something significant about what happened to Isak.
“Yeah, fine, sorry, just got a muscle cramp, but I’m good,” he lies.
Magnus calls Vilde and Vilde joins the boys in drinking beer, but she glances around the apartment, on edge the entire time. While the boys relax after a few beers, Vilde continues to look around, like she's anticipating a jump-scare.
Even expects Isak to come back at some point, but he stays in the bedroom. It’s not snowing in the apartment; Even considers that a small blessing.
Before long, Vilde brings up Isak to ask how he’s doing and Even takes advantage of the topic change.
“So, what actually happened to him?” he asks carefully.
The four of them exchange looks, but to his disappointment, Jonas just shrugs. “We’re not actually sure. I’d been trying to get a hold of him for a few hours, but he wasn’t answering his phone. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but, uh, I really should’ve—maybe it would’ve—” Jonas stops short, seems to get a hold of himself and changes tracks. “Anyway, when Vilde came home, the police was already here.”
Even’s gaze shifts to Vilde. “You saw what happened to him?”
Vilde bites her lip and shakes her head. “No. The ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. The police—they were—” She glances over at Jonas. If Even had blinked, he might’ve missed the minute shake of Jonas’ head. “They were trying to figure out what happened,” Vilde finishes unconvincingly.
Jonas and Mahdi look completely stone-faced, but Vilde isn’t meeting Even’s gaze, and Magnus looks openly guilty.
“They’re hiding something,” Even says at the same time Isak says, “I thought he’d be able to see me.”
Isak looks crestfallen, and from what Even’s used to, he expects the apartment to get colder, but instead, Isak just becomes more transparent to the point where Even’s not sure he’ll be able to touch him.
He reaches out, both to comfort Isak and to ensure he still can touch. To his relief, Isak feels solid even though he doesn’t look it.
“I know, I’m sorry.” He pulls Isak into a hug and gently runs his fingers through his hair. “But you can hear all of them, can’t you? When they’re talking to you at the hospital?”
He feels Isak nod, but Even knows it’s not enough. Isak wants more. Isak wants his friends back. Isak wants to be back with his friends. Maybe Isak had been right; maybe some delusional part of Even really had thought they could be broken together forever.
When Even pulls back, Isak looks at him with furrowed eyebrows. “Wait, what did you mean you said they’re hiding something?”
Even shrugs. “That they’re hiding something. Vilde said the ambulance was gone when she came home, but the police was still here. So, she saw something and they all know what, but they didn’t say.”
“My mamma,” Isak says immediately.
“That’s what they’re hiding. They saw her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know that,” Isak insists. “Look, they didn’t tell you because I think they were trying to respect my privacy. But Jonas knows why I don’t have a good relationship with her, he knows everything.” Even feels a pang of jealousy at that, but he tries to shove it aside, tries to focus on Isak’s words instead. “You have to talk to her, Even, I think she’s the only one who knows everything and I need—I need to know before I—”
“Before you what?” Even asks.
Isak shakes his head, and Even knows in his gut that something’s wrong because he’s never seen Isak look this scared. “I think something’s happening. I feel weaker, I can’t do shit with the temperature, I don’t know what’s going on.”
Trying to pin down where Marianne is isn’t easy. Even visits a few police stations, tries to weasel any information he can out of the people he talks to, but ultimately, everything he wants to know is confidential.
But he manages to charm one of the younger nurses at the hospital into telling him what happened. Even’s not proud of it—maybe he is a little, but not a significant amount.
Frida searches through some files, while Even keeps watch. Technically, he supposes she wouldn’t get into any trouble, not when managing Isak’s case is a part of her job, but he errs on the safe side.
“Anoxia,” Frida says after a few minutes.
“What?” Even abandons his post to walk over to her.
“Traumatic brain injury caused by anoxic anoxia,” she repeats.
“Lack of oxygen?”
Frida shrugs. “Suffocation. Says here he was found locked in a closet. Must’ve been a long time if he was deprived of that much oxygen.”
Frida shakes her head. “Just that his mom was admitted to Gaustad after this happened.”
Even frowns. “Gaustad? Isn’t that—”
“The psychiatric hospital, yeah,” she finishes. “I’m not sure what the link is, but I think his injury may have had something to do with her.”
Even vomits on his way home.
“Why aren’t you telling me?” Isak’s nearly shouting.
Even winces, but remains as stoic as he can. He doesn’t know what this information will do to Isak, doesn’t know if it’s going to bring about an influx of memories that were maybe better off left repressed. His mom was the reason Isak had ended up like this? Even feels like throwing up all over again.
“I thought we were in this together.”
“Are we?” Even finally snaps. Anger is easier to channel. Anger is a form of postponement. Because he knows there’s going to come a time when he has to tell Isak, and he will tell him, just not yet. At least not until he has a chance to talk to Isak’s mother first and find out the entire truth, not just fragments.
“Are we actually in this together or is this just for you? You’ve said it yourself, haven’t you? We’re not friends.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, don’t—”
“Don’t what? Don’t throw your own words back at you?”
Isak looks livid. “No, don’t fucking act like you don’t understand why I said, why I’ve been saying that. You know why.”
“I also know you asked me to get a life. Isn’t that what you said? That I should date someone, hang out with my friends, stop letting my life revolve around you?”
“I—is that what you want?”
Even feels like there’s a crack in his heart. The conversation isn’t just about Isak and his mom anymore. A part of him thinks they’d been leading up to something like this for a while. “You said that’s what I should do.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Isak says through gritted teeth.
“What happens when you recover?”
“We don’t know if I’m even going to be fine,” Isak shouts, frustrated.
“Fine, what if you do, then?” Even amends.
“What the fuck about it?”
“Are we going to be friends?”
“Are we going to be friends?” Even repeats.
“Friends,” Isak finally says, and there’s a bitter edge to his voice. “Is that what we're going to call it?”
It’s the last thing Even expects to hear. He flounders for a few seconds until he regains his composure. “Well, according to you, we’re not even that.”
“Fine.” There’s a finality to the word when Isak says it. “I’ll figure it out myself, then.” It’s the most transparent Even’s ever seen him.
With a faint pop, Isak vanishes and Even’s heart drops to his stomach.
hoooo ok, i promise mamma valtersen isn't evil or anything even though it seems like it in this chapter; there's just more to unpack :)
The temperature in Even’s apartment is steadily warm and comforting and he hates it.
Days have gone by since Isak vanished, and Even can’t find him anywhere. He’s not hiding in the closets—which is a relief given what he knows about Isak’s brain injury—but he’s also not hiding anywhere else in the apartment.
Even’s best guess is he’s hiding somewhere in the building.
The loneliness that engulfs him in Isak’s absence is instantaneous.
Even doesn’t mind being alone; he’s personable, he likes being around people, but time alone typically gives him a chance to recoup after a long day of socializing, of overthinking the things he does and says.
Now, Even thinks he’d give up all his vital organs to have Isak back.
“How can I help you?”
“I called a few days about meeting with Marianne Valtersen,” Even says, hesitant.
“Are you a family member?”
“No, just, uh, one of her son’s friends.”
Even signs in as a visitor and follows the nurse. She seats him at a table and leaves, presumably to get Marianne. Even waits, tries to tamp down the anxiety that’s rising to his throat like bile. Come to think of it, it probably is bile. A few minutes later, he sees a woman being led toward him. He straightens up and gets to his feet.
The first thing Even notices is that Isak’s resemblance to her is strong. They have the same curly, dirty blonde hair and button-like nose.
“You’re not Jonas,” is the first thing Marianne says to him.
“I’m Even,” he says. He thinks twice about extending his hand out to her to shake—too stilted, too formal.
Marianne just nods and sits down and Even follows suit. He’d decided against rehearsing what to say, but now, sitting in front of Marianne, he wishes he had. There’s no way he can just outright ask her if she was responsible for what happened to Isak.
Marianne’s the one who breaks the silence. “How is he?”
“Isak? Isn’t that why you came to talk to me? It’s usually Jonas.”
“Jonas comes here?” Even repeats, confused.
Marianne looks more wary, but she nods. “To let me know how he’s doing.”
Even’s not sure what it is—remorse or just plain grief, but judging from the look on Marianne’s face, it’s the latter.
“I heard he’s getting better, that he might recover completely. Is that true?” Marianne asks and the hope in her voice is unmistakable. He hears it in the voice inside his own head.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Even offers, hopes he sound reassuring even though he doesn’t feel it. He hesitates for a moment, decides exactly how to broach the topic that’s been nagging his brain ever since he’d found out, then finally, succumbs to the curiosity. “How did it happen?”
“Isak. How did he get hurt?”
Marianne’s silent for a while. For too long. It’s almost a guilty silence. Then, she gets to her feet. “I’m tired. I’m going to go back to my room,” she says coolly.
Even tries to tell himself it doesn’t confirm any of his suspicions, but Marianne’s abrupt departure seems like damning evidence.
Even keeps going back to Gaustad.
Every time, once Marianne gets a glimpse of who her visitor is, she turns on her heel and walks away.
As far as making a good first impression goes, Even’s certainly not winning any awards.
Nothing but desperation leads Even to Jonas.
“What happened to him?” Even skips the bullshit.
Jonas looks taken aback for a second before he laughs nervously and puts his phone away. “What?”
Even glances over at Isak, who’s fast asleep on the hospital bed, and feels his heart twist. He’d been visiting Isak everyday since the grumpier Isak in his life vanished, but he hadn’t talked to him, didn’t know if the other Isak would hear everything. He wonders if Isak would hear his conversation with Jonas if the Isak in the hospital is asleep, but as long as Jonas concedes and tells him the truth, then he supposes it doesn’t really matter.
“I know you know what happened to him,” Even says.
“Yeah? Because I told you what happened.”
Jonas is a pretty smooth liar; Even will give him that.
“Did you tell me everything?”
“Everything I know, yes.”
“You know more.”
Jonas lifts an eyebrow. “Why are you so convinced I’m hiding something?”
“Because you visit his mom at Gaustad.”
Jonas narrows his eyes. “How did you know his mom’s in Gaustad?”
“Got a nurse to show me his file,” Even mutters. “But that’s not the point—”
“What are you in this for?” Jonas interrupts.
Even blinks. “Huh?”
“You said you met Isak at a couple of parties a while back. You said you two never had a thing. He never mentioned you to me or any of our other friends.” Jonas lets out a disbelieving laugh. “I mean, for fuck’s sake, I didn’t even know who you were until you showed up here and I found you talking to him like you were in love with him. So, tell me the truth. What’s going on?”
Even falters. Realizes maybe Jonas had heard a little more than he’d led on. “You wouldn’t believe me,” he finally says.
Jonas shrugs. “Try me.”
Even can’t. Can’t even afford to try. Not with his own mental history. If he tried telling anyone the truth, the complete truth, there was no doubt in his mind that he’d soon end up keeping Marianne company in Gaustad.
Even finally settles on saying, “I care about him.”
“That’s what you were so afraid to tell me?” Jonas sounds skeptical.
Even runs a hand through his hair, looks back at Isak.
He’s still asleep.
Fuck, Even misses hugging him. Misses Isak holding him through the night, patiently waiting for Even to wake up before he hugged him again, like it was his morning cup of coffee. Misses how, once he learned he could get drunk, got childishly excited whenever Even offered him alcohol. Misses his grumpy presence, misses his voice, misses his cutting sarcasm, misses his eye-rolls, misses his flush when he’s bashful or when Even flirts openly. Even misses Isak with an ache that’s all-consuming.
But he just shrugs in response to Jonas’ question.
“She told me,” Jonas says after a few moments of silence. “His mom. That you’ve been to visit.”
“You visited her?”
“I do. Every week.”
“I thought they didn’t have a good relationship.”
“They didn’t,” Jonas agrees. “But he’s her son and she wanted to know what was going on with him, so.”
“Is she—” Even cuts himself off; he doesn’t know how to phrase it.
But Jonas beats him to the punch. “The reason he’s here?” he asks, and Even nods. “Partially.” The way his stomach sinks must somehow manifest externally on his face because Jonas continues. “But you don’t know everything. Hell, I don’t even know everything. What I do know is that Gaustad’s helping. She’s doing better.”
“What’s she in there for?” Even asks carefully.
Even’s hands feel clammy. “So, you do know what happened?”
Jonas hesitates, but then he nods. “Isak told me about it. No one else knew. Or knows, really, the extent of how bad he had it at home. She’s had these episodes for a while, but it got worse after his dad left. That’s when they moved into the apartment you’re living in now. I think things got really bad at one point. We didn’t—fuck, we were all stupid kids, I was stupid.”
Jonas looks away, looks at Isak, and Even gets the sense he’s carrying a lot of guilt on his shoulders. “He had been growing distant, he started skipping school, didn’t go out with any of us, and we just thought he needed his space. I should’ve made the connection it was because of what was happening at home. But anyway, this was back when his mom hadn’t been diagnosed, she wasn’t taking any meds and things just kept spiraling. She thought Isak was the devil—she was afraid, she tried to fight him off, and I think it went too far one day. I think—I think he got scared and hid. Either that or he—”
Jonas trails off, and Even doesn’t even want to say it out loud, doesn't really want Jonas to confirm he's right.
Either that or he did it on purpose.
Even takes a few days to process what he knows. Then, he makes a last-ditch effort. He goes to Gaustad again.
Marianne, as expected, sees him, then turns on her heel, but Even had prepared himself for that. He rises from the chair.
He’s surprised when she stops, her back still turned to him.
“Did he do it on purpose?” Even asks, his heart beating fast in his chest.
Marianne doesn’t respond. With resignation, Even thinks she won’t say anything. That she’ll just keep walking. But he tries again. “Do you know? You were there.” He tries to keep any misplaced accusation out of his voice; he doesn’t understand the extent of what she’s going through, what Isak went through with her, but he has some experience in the realm.
A few moments pass. She turns, and Even notices her cheeks are wet.
“I’m sorry,” Even says, guilty.
“I wasn’t a good mother.”
Marianne takes a few steps toward him and Even pulls up a chair for her.
“But I didn’t mean for anything to happen to him,” Marianne continues, her voice quiet, her words heavy. “I didn’t even know what was happening to me. I don’t remember all of it. I know he had to take care of me a lot; he must’ve had to. We were alone. We didn’t have anyone else. Most times, Isak didn’t even have me. I don’t know if he did it on purpose. I don’t know if it was an accident. But I drove him to it either way.”
Even doesn’t know what to say. He reaches out, hesitantly puts his hand on top of hers.
“I’m getting help now,” Marianne says. “But even if he gets better, recovers completely, I don’t think he’ll want to see me.”
“Have you seen him? Since—”
Marianne cuts him off with a shake of her head. “I’m not allowed. Not unless he visits me.” There’s a long pause before she speaks again. “Will you tell him?”
“Tell him what?” Even asks softly.
“That I’m sorry. That I love him. That I’m doing everything I can to get better, but on some days, it’s not enough and I won’t blame him if he wants to stay away.”
Even nods. That, at least, he understands.
Everything comes to a head at once.
Even wakes up at 1:30 a.m. to someone clutching him tight and a text from Frida.
“You’re—the other you—” Even gasps, tries to slot it all together in his head.
Isak cuts him off. “I know.”
Even sits up and turns on the light. Isak’s about ninety percent transparent. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but he feels dread pool in his stomach like a slow onset flood.
“I’m sorry, I wanted to talk to your mom—” Even starts to say, but Isak shakes his head and wraps his arms around Even, his nose burrowing into Even’s neck. It doesn’t feel the same as hugging Isak used to. It feels, for the first time, like Even’s trying to hold on to something that isn’t quite there, like silk slipping through his fingers.
“I remember everything,” Isak mutters. “I don’t have much time.”
“What? Are you dying?”
To his surprise, Isak laughs. “No, no. Uh, the opposite. I’m getting better. The other me. But that means—”
“You won’t be around,” Even realizes.
He feels Isak hold him tighter. “I missed you. I’m sorry I said—”
“Me too.” Even thinks they don’t need to reopen that can of worms. This Isak, his Isak, is leaving and it’s all that’s on his mind.
“Will you—will you visit me in the hospital? And after?” Isak asks, hesitant.
Even’s answer is a resounding yes, but he asks, “You want me to?”
“Isn’t that what friends do?”
Isak pulls back a little and Even can’t read the look on his face. “Can I try something?”
Even nods and holds his breath. Isak’s closer than he’s ever been. Isak’s beautiful. His long eyelashes create a shadow when he looks down, his gaze on Even’s lips, making his intentions clear. The anticipation is killing him. But he waits. It’s Isak’s call. After what seems like hours, days, maybe even weeks, Isak kisses Even and Even thinks he explodes into nothing. He tries to deepen the kiss, tries to tangle his fingers in Isak’s hair, but when he brings his hands up to touch, there’s nothing but air.
He knows it even before he opens his eyes—Isak’s gone and Even's left with the phantom remnants of a kiss that means everything and beyond.
Even doesn’t wait for daylight to break. He’s in the hospital at 2 a.m.
Frida looks surprised to see him. “I hope you don’t think I can let you see him now,” she says.
“Well, what’s going on?” Even asks. Tries to peep into Isak’s room to see what’s happening. He can’t see much.
“Doctors are in there. He’s fine. Kind of miraculous, honestly. We thought it would take much longer. Another few years, maybe. But he’s talking, he remembers everything, from what I know.”
“Yeah?” Even feels hopeful.
Frida smiles at him, and he should maybe thwart any expectations she might have, but as it is, he can’t think of anything but Isak. “You should go home. Get some rest.”
“I’ll wait,” Even says, determined.
“Uh, you’ll be waiting for a few hours. Visitors aren’t allowed until—”
“Until 8 a.m., I know. I’ll wait.”
Someone's shaking Even awake and he startles. He'd dozed off.
“Dude, did you know? Isak’s responding,” Magnus says, excited.
Even jumps to his feet then, realizes he hears commotion coming from inside Isak’s room.
He doesn’t know why he feels nervous when he follows Magnus, but some of it, the worst of it, dissipates when he sees Isak laughing at something or other that Mahdi’s saying. He looks tired, different from the Isak Even’s used to, but he looks healthy.
Isak’s eyes flit over to meet Even’s and Even feels his heart soar. They hold each other’s gaze for perhaps too long before Isak flushes and looks away, like he hadn’t meant to stare. Something feels off.
Besides the brief eye contact, Isak doesn’t acknowledge him. He keeps glancing back over at Even, and each time, he looks increasingly quizzical. He mutters something to Jonas, and Jonas looks between Isak and Even.
“That’s Even,” Jonas says. “You’ve met him at a few parties apparently.”
Isak meets Even’s gaze again, still looks puzzled when he gives Even a small, apologetic smile.
Even’s chest feels too tight.
Isak remembers everything, but that doesn't extend to him. Isak doesn't remember Even.
oops this is the shortest chapter yet, but i'll try to make up for it with the next one, which'll be the last one as well (but i say that and that often never ends up being the case so we'll see)
anyway i know there are quite a few mysteries in this chapter but hopefully i'll manage to unearth it all in the next
as always, thanks for reading and leaving comments, i appreciate the feedback!! ❤
Each sixty-second orbit around the clock feels like an hour. An hour of silence. An hour of dread. An hour of misery. An hour of heartbreak. An hour of resignation. An hour of resolution.
In reality, Even’s been in the apartment for a grand total of six minutes before he realizes he needs to leave. For his own sanity. A minute longer and he thinks he might start hallucinating a blur of gray, maroon, and green. Worse yet, a part of him wants to hallucinate that, wants to see Isak, the one who didn’t look at him with complete and utter confusion, one last time.
But he knows it won’t happen. Understands it’s selfish to even wish for it.
He packs only the things he needs. Each passing second spent alone in the apartment makes him feel like there are termites crawling over his skin. Everything Isak has ever touched is still there—from the birthday presents Even had given him to the canvas with the gray, maroon, and green stripe. The things that once cemented Isak’s physical presence in Even’s apartment seems, in his absence, like a representation of Even’s mental instability.
Even will eventually have to rope his friends into helping him move out of the apartment completely. But not today. Maybe not even for another few weeks. He turns and Even’s gaze lands on the canvas.
After a moment’s indecision, he takes it with him.
Even moves back home.
It’s the one place he won’t be asked any questions. His mom welcomes him back with open arms and it’s another easy routine to slip into. He helps with cooking, they eat together in front of the TV, and watch movies until his mom falls asleep on the couch.
The cord squeezing his lungs loosens a little.
Nearly two months pass before Even sees him again.
He almost drops the cup of tea he’d made when he glances up and sees Isak in line at KB. Maybe it's finally happened—maybe Even has officially started seeing things. But the man at the front of the line leaves, another woman steps up to the counter, and Isak's the last person waiting.
It’s 18:56. They close at 19:00.
There’s probably an easy out in this situation, but Isak’s eyeing the pastries and Even feels his stomach twist. He doesn’t have the heart to refuse service under the guise that they’re closing for many reasons, prime among them being that it’s Isak. An Isak who doesn’t know or remember him, but Isak nonetheless, and a hungry Isak at that. Hunger, something the Isak in his apartment hadn’t felt in three years.
Isak steps up to the counter when the woman leaves with her tea, and Even gets a better look at him. His hair’s shorter, his cheeks are flushed, the hint of a stubble makes him look older, and there’s no combination of gray, maroon, or green. It’s all white, blue, and khaki.
“One cinnamon bun, please.” Isak’s rifling through his wallet, doesn’t look up until Even hands him the box with the bun. He blinks, and Even’s not sure if it’s his imagination or if the flush on his cheeks deepens. “Oh, hi.”
Even attempts a friendly smile, tries not to overtly show that anything’s amiss. “Hi. That’ll be 44 kroner.”
“You were at the hospital,” Isak blurts.
Even’s eyebrows rise in surprise, but he nods without meeting Isak’s gaze.
“We’ve met before? I mean, before the hospital?”
Even looks at the money in Isak’s hands, hopes he’ll just hand it over and leave. He hadn’t readied himself to actually see Isak again, especially not under these circumstances—him working at KB, Isak strolling in four minutes before closing looking unsure and hesitant, finally orienting himself to the world around him after only seeing the white walls of the hospital.
There was a lot Even wanted to ask him—how he was doing, where he was staying, whether he had talked to his mother, why he apparently remembered everything and everyone except Even, but Even should stick to his script. The one that tells him Isak and Even ran into each other at a couple of parties years ago and that’s how Even knows Isak. But though it had been easy to supply that lie to Jonas and Sana and everyone else, he feels uneasy about feeding Isak the same lie.
So, he just shrugs. “I’m friends with Sana’s brother.” He circumvents the truth, but at least he’s not exactly lying. “The bun’s, uh, 44 kroner,” he repeats a little more pointedly.
“Right.” The color rising to Isak’s cheeks is unmistakable this time, and he hands Even the money. “Thanks. See you.”
Even almost wants to quit his job right then.
Isak’s visits are like clockwork, and Even never claimed to have any semblance of a willpower.
He stays, never quits KB, both because he needs the job and because something with Isak is better than nothing.
At one point or another, Even supposes he’ll have to face facts: months of aching and pining and yearning isn’t a superficial crush. He doesn’t even know what Isak’s up to now, but he continues down the spiraling, infatuated trajectory he’d been on since the night he met Isak.
Every evening, Isak comes a few minutes before 19:00. On weekends, before 18:00. Each day, Even tells Yasmine he’ll clean and close up, that she should just head home early. Before long, she realizes the flush on Even’s face is because of the Cinnamon Bun Boy.
For a week, Isak orders a different pastry every day, like a curious kid discovering candy for the first time and trying to find his footing in the vast realm. Then, he returns to religiously buying a cinnamon bun. Even idly wonders if it’s dessert for the night or breakfast for the next morning. They don’t talk much. Just a ‘hi’ and ‘see you,’ but it's the worst and best part of all of Even's days.
“It’s on the house,” Even says one Thursday, handing Isak the bag with a cinnamon bun inside before Isak has a chance to order.
Isak’s eyebrows furrow. “Why?”
Even shrugs, gives Isak a smile. “Why not?”
“That’s not really an answer,” Isak points out, but he takes the bag from Even, a reluctant smile tugging up the corners of his lips. “Thanks.”
Even nods in return, but Isak still stands there, hesitating. For a second, Even’s traitorous heart has its moment in the sun. He lets himself hope that the Even-shaped chunk of Isak’s memories are returning.
“You said you were friends with Elias, yeah?” Isak asks, cautious.
“I did.” Even moves around, works just to keep his hands occupied. Isak’s question sounded like a prelude to something else, but if it isn’t, if it’s nothing but curiosity, Even doesn’t want to be awash with the disappointment that’s clung to his skin like saran wrap ever since Isak’s memories of Even disappeared.
“So, we haven’t really met?”
Even starts wiping down the tables. “Might’ve run into each other here and there. Why do you ask?”
Isak doesn’t say anything for several moments and Even glances over at him. He looks confused. Even notices, for the first time, just how real this Isak looks, more than the phantom of Isak ever did. In retrospect, it was ridiculous to even think one could pass for the other.
“I just—” Isak cuts himself short, and shaking his head, laughs. “This is going to sound insane.”
Even smiles wryly. “I can handle it.”
Isak looks up, meets Even’s gaze, then sighs. “Sorry I keep coming in so late.”
“There are more insane things than craving a cinnamon bun at 19:00.”
Isak rolls his eyes. “Hadn’t gotten to the insane part yet.”
“OK.” Even gives up the charade of pretending to clean. He leans against one of the tables and waits.
“Considering you were at the hospital, I’m guessing you know most of the basics about what happened to me.” Isak pauses, nods when Even nods, then continues. “I guess it’s pretty strange to be back out in the world. I, uh, I even kind of forgot about the button on the tram and the bus that opens the door. I just completely fucking missed the bus the first time I went out because I stood in front of the doors, waiting for it to open.”
“People have trouble with it sometimes,” Even offers lightly.
Isak raises his eyebrows. He looks a little amused. “Are you saying you’re one of those people?”
“Because you have trouble pressing the button that opens the door?” Isak’s openly laughing now, and Even thinks he might’ve created a monster. But it’s a nice sight. A nice sound. Things he hasn’t seen or heard in a while, so long that he feels like he’s submerging himself in cold water after walking on hot coals for years.
Even laughs with him. “Are you usually a shit to people who try to console you?”
Isak shrugs, smiling. “Sometimes. Most times.”
Even smiles back and ignores the weight in his chest. The conversation is remarkably similar to one they’d had a few months ago. The day after Isak’s birthday. Only, the circumstances had been entirely different. Words spoken under covers, accompanied by soft, lazy touches.
Isak clears his throat and glances away. “I guess what I was trying to say is that I still feel like I don’t know everything. I mean, I know most things, almost everything, really, but it’s like something’s missing.” Isak frowns and starts backtracking. “I don’t know, sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, it’s OK,” Even says. He doesn’t know if he should feel hopeful. The something that’s missing might not even refer to Even. “It’s OK.”
Isak looks at him and smiles. It’s almost shy. Even’s heart aches with want. More than just want. Love, Even thinks stupidly. He doesn’t know where it comes from, but he finds he can’t meet Isak’s gaze anymore.
“Well, I should get going,” Isak says. “Thanks for the bun.”
“What do you like to eat here?” Isak asks.
It’s been a month of regularly scheduled visits. Even wonders how he’s not sick of cinnamon buns yet, delicious as they are. Though, seeing as Isak’s asking Even for recommendations, Even supposes he’s getting there.
“Gonna switch things up on me now after we started making cinnamon buns specially for you?” Even asks, smirking.
Isak rolls his eyes. “You do not have them specially made for me.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Unless you didn’t have them on the menu for the past three years, then yes.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
“Unpleasant mental image to have when you’re ordering food.”
“Can’t order unless you answer my question.”
“Which one?” It’s 19:03 and Even thinks he could spend the rest of his life behind KB’s counter, sparring with Isak.
Isak huffs. “Literally the only one I asked.”
Even comes around from behind the counter to look at the pastries, then points to the raspberry and almond muffin. “That one’s pretty good.”
“Do you like it?”
Isak looks so serious that Even has to suppress a laugh. “I do like it.”
Isak nods decisively then. “OK, I’ll have one of those and a cinnamon bun.”
“Coming up.” Even packs the two items, then rings it up. “92 kroner.”
Isak hands him the money and everything’s fine until Even hands him the two boxes. Isak doesn’t look him in the eyes, but for some reason, he’s resisting accepting both boxes. After a few seconds of this strange, baseless struggle that leaves Even feeling bewildered, Isak sighs. “The muffin’s for you, idiot.”
Even ends up dropping one of the boxes in surprise, and Isak uses that moment to grab the other box and hightail it out of the door before Even can say anything. Even stares after him in disbelief. When he opens the box, he finds the cinnamon bun inside.
Even lifts one of his shoulders up in a shrug, tears off a piece of the cinnamon bun, and stares at the canvas. He’d added enough that the stripe of gray, maroon, and green wasn’t unmoored in white nothingness. His mom sits down next to him, eats a piece of the bun.
“You haven’t painted in a while,” she observes.
“What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful so far.”
Even laughs. “You say that now. Wait until I force you to hang it up on the wall.”
His mom smacks him on the back of the head lightly. “Is that what you think? I’d hang it up proudly,” she insists. “Commission?”
Even shakes his head. “Just—well, inspiration or something, I guess.”
She hums thoughtfully in response. “Who is it? The boy in the picture?”
“You’re assuming he’s real,” Even points out.
“What makes you think that?”
His mom stares at the painting for a while, her lips pursed. “He feels real. Like you could paint him with your eyes closed. Like you painted him with care.”
Even looks at the painting. One half of the painting is a profile of Isak as Even knew him first—the snowstorm in gray, maroon, and green, surrounded by icy winter berries. The other half is the question mark, the one that will determine whether this canvas will be relegated to the attic, where the other half-finished paintings sit, neglected and uncompleted. His mom nudges him.
“So?” she presses.
“Is he real?”
“He is,” Even says slowly, a smile spreading across his face. “Very real.”
Isak doesn’t come to KB for the next two days. Even spends most of Tuesday debating whether he’d have better luck texting Jonas or Sana when he notices tufts of Isak’s curly hair at the end of a long line. At 12:30.
Even’s so busy making pick-me-up drinks to cure afternoon slumps that he doesn’t even get to take Isak’s order, but he is the one who makes it.
Instead of his name, Even scrawls a question on the cup. Come back at 19:30?
Isak reads it, then meets Even’s gaze and lifts an eyebrow. Even smiles, acts like he’s not buzzing with the desire to skip to the end of the day.
The door rattles, and even though Even had spent the better portion of his day waiting to hear the sound, it takes him by surprise.
Isak looks around KB when Even lets him in, then raises his eyebrows. “What am I doing here?”
“You’re the one who came.”
“Because you told me to.”
“Technically, I asked you.”
Isak rolls his eyes. “Fine. Why did you ask me to come?”
For how much he’d rehearsed the conversation in his mind, Even’s at a loss for what to say when presented with it. “I wanted to—” Even sighs, tries to reroute. “We have met each other. I’m not just Sana’s brother’s friend.”
“Yeah, I know,” Isak says.
“You do?” Even’s confused.
“Yeah, I don’t actually like cinnamon buns that much.” Isak winces. “Well, I mean, I like them; it’s just starting to hurt my wallet.”
“Just seemed kind of unlikely you’d be at the hospital when I woke up if you were just one of Elias’ friends.” Isak shrugs, looks a little awkward. “But it’s not just that. I feel like I know you. I mean, shit, I’m not just saying that because I feel bad I don’t remember you or something. I just—I get these glimpses sometimes of you and so I thought if I came here and saw enough and talked to you enough—”
“You might remember,” Even finishes.
“When do you get it? The glimpses of me?” Even asks.
“Hmm? Oh.” Isak flushes. “It’s not going to make any sense, it doesn’t even make any sense to me.”
“That’s fine,” Even assures. “When did you get it?”
“When I wore this one jacket.”
Jacket. Isak’s green jacket? “What did you see?” Even asks instead.
Isak coughs and glances away. He looks like he’s considering sprinting out of the door again. “Uh, you asking if I was stuck in it.”
“If you were stuck in it,” Even repeats slowly. “Like, if you were glued to it?”
“No, like if I could take it off.” Isak sounds pained. “Look, I told you it wasn’t going to make any sen—what? Why are you smiling?”
“Like hell you’re not.”
It’s not everything, but it’s something. Isak remembered the first time they hugged, he remembered Even asking him if he was stuck in the clothes they both thought he’d died in. “Are you hungry?” Even asks.
“I—what?” Isak’s eyes narrow.
“Have you eaten dinner?”
“You don’t want to toast it?” A piece of bread with several cold slices of cheese and a mixture of spices sits on one of the KB plates. Isak’s eyeing it with unconcealed distaste.
“Nope,” Even says cheerfully.
“Are you sure? There’s an industrial quality toaster oven right here.”
Even cuts the bread in two and gives one half to Isak, who just glares at the bread. Even knocks his shoulder into Isak’s own. “Don’t want to eat it?” He distinctly remembers Isak, a version of Isak, saying the same words to him once upon a time.
“I actually already had dinner,” Isak says quickly.
Even raises his eyebrows. “You told me you didn’t.”
“Fuck.” Isak sighs. “Fine.” He raises the bread to his lips and winces even before he swallows the bite he’d taken. Even follows suit, realizes that for some reason he might never be able to explain, it’s not the worst thing he’s tasted in his life.
“Ugh, that’s gross as shit,” Isak complains.
Even smiles to himself. “It’ll grow on you.”
Isak gives Even a skeptical look, but a second later, it’s replaced by something else. Recognition replacing unrecognition.
“What?” Even asks just to be sure.
“I’ve eaten this before,” Isak says quietly.
Even smiles. “You have.”
“I’ve eaten this with you.”
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
“You don’t have to,” Even tries again.
“I know I don’t have to. Closure, remember?”
Even nods, but he must be doing a poor job of concealing his worry because Isak cups his face with both hands and kisses him on the lips, short and sweet.
The apartment’s empty. Elias and Mutta had carried the last of Even’s furniture. Isak had stayed away throughout most of the move, but offered to come up with Even for a final check. Isak enters first. His hands are curled into fists by his sides. Even touches his hand, waits until Isak slowly unfurls the fist and holds Even’s hand.
“What was it like for you?” Isak asks, staring at the built-in closet. “Living here?”
Even squeezes his hand. “Good and bad.”
“Good?” Isak lets out a disbelieving laugh. “You had a literal skeleton in your closet.”
“You looked the same as you do now.”
“The skeleton sounds cooler, though. Scarier.” Isak turns away from the closet and angles his body so he’s facing Even. He looks like he’s blinking back tears.
“We can leave, Isak,” Even says quietly, bringing a hand up to touch Isak’s cheek. “I’ve taken all my stuff.”
“We fought over whose place this was,” Isak mutters. “When we met.”
“We did,” Even agrees.
“And now we can’t stand to stay here.”
“For many, many valid reasons.” Even leaves the key on the counter, along with a thank you note for Harald. If nothing else, the man had done his best to help Even when he’d been having his initial phantom-related problems. “You ready?”
“Why was it good?”
“Don’t you know the answer?”
Isak gives him a cheeky smile. “I do.”
Even shakes his head and holds his hand out to Isak. Isak takes it, pulls himself close to Even’s body. “For the record, it wasn’t all bad for me, either.”
“I mean, I woke up when I kissed you. Sounds like true closure, no?”
Isak shrugs. “This place wasn’t filled with only bad memories. I had good ones, too.”
Even turns off the lights and Isak closes the door of the apartment behind him.
“So, kind of like Sleeping Beauty but set in an apartment instead of a kingdom?” Even asks, holding Isak’s hand.
“Does that make you Sleeping Beauty?”
“Why would I be Sleeping Beauty?”
“You were sleeping when I kissed you.”
“I was sleeping before you kissed me,” Even corrects. “True love’s kiss affected you more than me.”
“Bullshit. True love’s kiss had the same effect on you,” Isak argues.
“So, you’re saying I’m your true love?” Even pretends to look around when they enter the empty elevator. “Me?”
Isak opens and closes his mouth a few times, then feigns looking embarrassed. “Shit, I didn’t realize Magnus wasn’t in the elevator.”
Even laughs and kisses him. “Would’ve been easier to believe if you’d used anyone but Magnus.”
“I guess I fucked that up for myself,” Isak mutters, his fingers tangling in Even’s hair.
“See any ghosts?” Isak’s eyes are twinkling when he passes the joint to Even.
After hours of moving things out of one apartment to another, they both collapse on the bed without bothering to put any sheets first.
“You mean phantoms.”
Isak frowns. “Is there a difference?”
“Uh, you definitely thought there was. Had such a stick up your ass about it.”
Isak gives him a shove and Even laughs, sitting up to blow the smoke he’d inhaled into Isak’s mouth.
“We’re hauling ass if there’s one of those around here, though,” Isak says. “Don’t know how you put up with that, for fuck’s sake.”
Even shrugs. “Pretty easy when the ghost haunting you is hot as fuck.”
Isak snorts and blows smoke directly in Even’s face.
The other half of Even's painting is similar to the first half—a profile of Isak as Even relearned him. Gray, maroon, and green, but also white, blue, and khaki. All colors meshing into one.
thank you for reading!!! ❤